At the beginning of his memoir Chasing Daylight, Eugene O’Kelly wrote an extraordinary statement:
“I was blessed. I was told I had three months to live.”
What would you do if you had only three months to live?
It’s often through contemplating death that we come to realize what is–and isn’t–important in life, and how to live our lives to the fullest so that we don’t end up on the list of The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying. In other words, how can we make a meaningful and remarkable life?
To answer this question, we must understand that life is made up of different moments, good ones and bad ones, big ones and small ones, ones that we want to remember and ones that we want to forget, they’re all worth living and shaping our destiny.
Moments create days. Days create weeks. Weeks create months. Months create years. Years create life. When we create meaningful, remarkable moments, we create a meaningful, remarkable life.
Then, how to create meaningful and remarkable moments in our lives?
An incredible book The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath try to answer this question and outline an easy-to-follow framework for creating remarkable moments. They call these moments “Defining Moments.”
“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 is a smaller experience that are defining moments in the context of a vacation, a presentation, or a product development cycle.”
How can we fight the flatness of our daily lives and make moments that matter? The Heath brothers conclude through their research that defining moments are created from four key elements:
- Elevation: Moments of elevation are experiences that rise above everyday routines. Moments that make us feel engaged, joyful, amazed, motivated. They provoke not just transient happiness, but lasting and memorable delight. To construct elevated moments, we must boost sensory pleasures and, if appropriate, add an element of surprise.
- Insight: Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations. They rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world. In a few seconds or minutes, we realize something that might influence our lives for decades: Now is the time for me to start this business. Or, this is the person I’m going to marry.
- Pride: Moments of pride capture us at our best – showing courage – when you stood up for what you believed in even if you stand alone, earning recognition – when you won a hard-fought game or an award, conquering challenges – when you achieved something that many people thought was impossible.
- Connection: Moments of connection deepen our relationship with others. They are social: weddings, graduations, baptisms, vacations, work triumphs, speeches, sporting events. These moments are strengthened because we share them with others, especially with our loved ones.
Defining moments possess at least one of the four elements above, but they need not have all four. Many moments of insight, for example, are private – they don’t involve a connection. And a fun moment in a vacation doesn’t offer much insight or pride.
If we want to create defining moments for ourselves as well as others, we must think in moments. For an individual human being, moments are the thing. Moments are what we remember and what we cherish. Certainly, we might celebrate achieving a goal, such as completing a marathon or landing a significant client – but the achievement is embedded in a moment, such as graduation, wedding, birthday, and promotion. This is what we mean by “thinking in moments”: to recognize where the prose of life needs punctuation.
The Peak-end Rule
To think in moments, we must ask ourselves, “Why some moments stand out while others fade away? What makes our experiences memorable and lasting?” To answer these questions, we have to understand two important psychological concepts “Peak-end Rule” and “Duration Neglect” discovered by the Nobel Prize-winning Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman. His definition of the peak-end rule is as follows:
“The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense points, both best and worst) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”
It seems that our memories of positive and negative experiences are dependent upon two things: what we were feeling at the most extreme points (peak and pit) and how the experience ended. Our memories are typically not an average of the experience but a series of highlights and lowlights – events or moments that we feel the most joy or pain in our lives.
Funerals have been described as a manifestation of the peak-end rule. Even with a lifetime of experiences about someone we have known, we end with recalling or hearing the most positive things or most memorable moments about their lives, likely affecting our overall memories of them.
Divorces or breakups are also common examples, as we may vividly recall a heartbreaking or painful ending of our marriages or relationships, but years of happy moments shared together are mostly overshadowed by a bad ending.
As it turns out, even how long an experience lasts has little impact on the memory that is formed. That is when people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length – a phenomenon called “Duration Neglect.”
The length of time of an experience does not get interpreted to our memories. It seems we do not make rational calculations of how long our experiences of pain or pleasure last. Our memories are defined by the peaks or pits, as well as the ending rather than how we felt most of the time of the experience.
Duration neglect can be demonstrated in how we form memories of vacations. Extending vacations appears to not have a positive impact on the memories formed from the experience. A 1-month vacation will produce similar positive memories as a 1-week vacation since there are not diverse memories being formed. So, longer vacations are not necessarily remembered more fondly than shorter trips.
The Primacy Effect
So peak-end rule and duration neglect tell us that we tend to remember the most intense moments and the last moment regardless of how long they have lasted.
But how about the idea that first impressions count?
Have you tried to remember something from a long list of items, just like many people do, you would tend to remember items listed at the beginning and the end instead of the middle. The tendency for people to more easily recall items that are presented last in a list is called the “Recency Effect.” This effect is a critical component of the peak-end theory.
In contrast to the recency effect, the tendency to more easily recall items that are presented at the start of a list is called the “Primacy Effect.” This effect explains why we are more likely to remember a lot of firsts in our lives: our first date, first kiss, first job, first promotion, first vacation, first flat,…
Both primacy and recency effects are biases that are believed to relate to attention span. People are more likely to pay attention at the beginning and at the end of the presentation of a list of items, and so those are more likely to be remembered.
The First-peak-end Rule
So, when we access our experiences or reflect on our lives, which are made up of billions of different moments, we tend to focus on those most intense and critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak, the pit, and the end because they draw most attention regardless of the duration. By adding “the beginning” to the “Peak-end Rule”, now we have the “First-peak-end Rule.“
Now we understand that not all moments are created equal. Therefore, instead of taking an average or sum of all the moments throughout an experience, we should focus on transcending the following four stand-out moments based on the First-peak-end Rule:
1. Celebrate the firsts: The memories of the firsts affect us so powerfully because they’re novel, sometimes even seared, into our psyches with a vividness and clarity that doesn’t fade as other memories do. You may not remember the 4th real kiss or the 5th public speech you ever had, —but you almost certainly remember your first. For instance, the first day of work is an experience worth celebrating and investing in. For new employees, it’s three big firsts at once: intellectual (new work), social (new people), and environment (new place). The first day of work shouldn’t be a set of bureaucratic activities on a checklist. It should be a peak moment.
2. Elevate the peaks: Learn to make an existing peak “peakier” – to redesign a birthday party, a vacation, or client presentation to make it more meaningful and memorable. To elevate a moment, do three things:
- Boost sensory appeal: it’s about “turning up the volume” on reality. Make things look better or taste better or sound better or feel better than they usually do. Focus on meaning rather than money, for instance, a wedding takes a place in a personally meaningful, emotion-heavy location rather than a pretty but generic banquet hall, to feel “handmade” rather than produced.
- Raise the stakes: it is to add an element of productive pressure, deliberately trying to up the ante for your performance: a competition, a game, a debate contest, a deadline, a public commitment, a ranking. Whether you win or loss, you would remember those moments when you fight the hardest for the highest of stakes.
- Break the script: it means to defy people’s expectations of how an experience will unfold. It’s not a generic surprise which is cheap and easy, rather it’s a strategic surprise that creates 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.”
3. Fill the pits: Pits are the opposite of peaks. They are negative defining moments – moments of hardship or pain or anxiety, such as accidents, chronical illnesses or divoices. They need to be filled – acts of kindness, compassion, comfort, or assistance in a difficult time. When we handle these situations well, we transform a negative moment into a positive one. Disney knows, for example, that people hate long lines. So Disney invests in ways to fill that pit by creating interesting displays as a distraction, and setting performers interact with guests, and setting expectations about the wait.
4. Raise the ends: Make it a grand finale to ensure people remember and feel positive emotions at the end of their interaction with you. When planning a special event like a date or party. Reserve the best and most fun moments towards the end of the event so everyone walks away with warm fuzzy feelings! Focus on ending experiences on the highest note possible can also help create positive memories from unpleasant experiences. For example, if an individual has a lousy dinner, they can finish their night by getting ice cream from their favorite restaurant.
The Heather brothers describe a mantra about great service experiences from their book: “Mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable.” That mantra applies to life experiences as well. The “occasionally remarkable” moments shouldn’t be left to chance! They should be planned for, paid attention to, and invested in. They are peaks that should be built, defining moments that we shall remember and cherish for the rest of our lives. And if we fail to do that, look at what we have left with: “mostly forgettable.”
If we recognize how important these natural defining moments are, we can seek them, build them, and shape them as much as we possibly can – make them more memorable and meaningful. So that one day when we look back and reflect on our lives, we can truly say to ourselves, “I have made the most of my life. My life is meaningful and remarkable.”
What if you had only three months to live?
I’d like to wrap up this article with a touching and life-changing story about Eugene O’Kelly, who was 53 years old when he was diagnosed with late-stage brain cancer in May 2005 and given three months to live. Within two weeks, he quit his job as CEO of accounting giant KPMG and scrapped all the plans he had made with his wife and two daughters.
One night at the dinner table, O’Kelly drew a map of his relationships and grouped them into five circles. His aim was to “beautifully resolve” his relationships, starting with the outer circles and working his way inwards.
In his outer circle, he contacted them by phone or email, highlighting favorite memories and appreciation for the other person. He decided to meet his third and fourth circles in person – he would meet them for an exquisite meal, or in a beautiful park for a walk, to share memories and gratitude for what they had done for each other. O’Kelly called these encounters “perfect moments”, and it was his mission to create as many of these as possible in the little time he had left.
By August, he was focusing on his inner circle and spent his time with his closest friends and family. A couple of weeks later, on September 10, 2005, O’Kelly died.
O’Kelly wrote a memoir, Chasing Daylight, where he began with an extraordinary statement, “I was blessed. I was told I had three months to live.” That statement, says his wife, Corrine, accurately reflects Eugene’s attitude and their experience during those final months of his life.
O’Kelly said, “If I told you to aim to create 30 Perfect Days, could you? How long would it take? Thirty days? Six months? Ten years? Never? I felt like I was living a week in a day, a month in a week, a year in a month.” – meaning he condensed his life by having more perfect moments in three months than he would have done in five or ten years of living his normal life.
Those who have faced death themselves often say in retrospect it was the best thing that could’ve happened because it forced them to reassess their lives and priorities. Consequently, they live their lives more fully as a result. It took a terminal illness for O’Kelly to do it. So what would it take to motivate you to create more perfect moments in your life? In fact, not all of us will be as lucky as Eugene O’Kelly – some of us might not be given any warning at all when our time is up. We just have to learn to live every day as if it were the last because we just don’t know.