The Power of Moments

By Chip Heath & Dan Heath

295 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Mayra Valle was a 6th-grader when she first sat in the auditorium at the University of Houston for “Senior Signing Day,” an event where seniors from Houston’s YES Prep charter school publicly announced their college plans with all the fanfare usually reserved for All-American athletes. Mayra watched as the crowd responded to the seniors’ declarations with eruptions of applause. Nobody in Valle’s family had gone to college. But in that moment, among cheers and tears of joy, Mayra was inspired. That could be me, she thought. Six years later, Mayra stood on that same stage and made her own announcement: “Good afternoon, everybody, my name is Mayra Valle. And this fall, I will be attending Connecticut College!”

Mayra’s story is inspiring, but what’s more remarkable is that her experience was engineered. A year before she entered sixth grade, the founders of Houston’s YES Prep were watching ESPN college football signing day when it hit them: They could create the same type of influential, awe-inspiring, memorable “moment” for their graduates. This is precisely the point of professors Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, The Power of Moments: If we pay attention and work creatively, we have the power to turn ordinary occasions into extraordinary ones.

The Power of Moments begins by outlining the elements of a “defining moment” and then, through storytelling and science, illustrates ways of making such an event extraordinary. The Heath brothers offer a four-part recipe with a mnemonic device, “EPIC,” which stands for:

  • Elevate. Create moments that rise above the everyday—for example, transforming the humdrum first day on a job into a memorable event.
  • Pride. Help people feel proud of accomplishing milestones—for example, improving one’s health through a nine-week “couch to 5k” exercise program.
  • Insight. Help people understand an important truth—for example, powerfully illustrating to a poor, rural Indian village how open defecation means community members are literally eating each other’s feces every day (gruesome notion, of course, but illustrative of a problem for billions of people).
  • Connection. Forge transformational alliances among people—for example, implementing an educational reform effort that builds bonds between teachers and parents.

I was pleased to see Moments dedicate an entire section to the motivating power of pride. People are highly emotional, and appealing to emotions such as pride can drive us to take action. The organization I lead, Rare, helps local leaders inspire their communities to take pride in their natural resources and change their behavior to protect and conserve them. Our impact hinges on changing mindsets and inspiring people to take action. Often this means engineering moments that catalyze change. (Full disclosure: Dan Heath is a former board member.)

My only critique on this point, and it’s minor, is that I would have enjoyed a deeper dive into the many sources of people’s pride. Recognizing others, multiplying milestones, and practicing courage are three strategies the authors outline for harnessing the power of pride, but I wish they had dug a level deeper into how pride in one’s identity—pride of place, pride of community, pride of tradition—can be used to engineer peak moments.

Moments’s opening example, YES Prep’s “Senior Signing Day,” which takes place in a packed auditorium, was a familiar scene for me. Just a few years ago, I found myself in a filled-to-capacity 2,000-seat auditorium in the small Filipino municipality of Inabanga, where a parade of interpretive dancers, local bands, and an oversized fish mascot helped kick off a Rare Pride campaign to restore the local fishery. Illegal fishing and destructive practices had been crippling the marine ecosystem, depleting fish populations, and putting the small town’s main livelihood at risk. The signature moment of the event came when the entire municipal government stood in the middle of the auditorium, raised their right hands, and made a public pledge to protect local marine resources. Many of the community members in attendance joined in.

Both Senior Signing Day and the officials’ pledge to protect Inabanga’s fishery are powerful moments because they elevate regular, everyday activities, foster pride in local accomplishments, and forge new connections among communities. As Chip and Dan Heath write, “defining moments are social,” and are “strengthened because we share them with others.” If you find yourself sitting in a packed auditorium, and people around you raise their hand to take a pledge, there’s a good chance you will, too.

Moments celebrates more private, personal connections as well. Take, for example, the story of the Flamboyan Foundation’s effort to help revive the failing Stanton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. After a challenging year, when it became evident that turning the school around would take more than a new curriculum and a new coat of paint, the critical inflection point came when teachers tried a new approach: They began visiting students’ homes and spoke with parents about their specific hopes and dreams for their children. The home visits, a series of individual moments, created a positive buzz in the community. Parents became engaged. Attendance at parent-teacher conferences spiked. Truancy dropped. Academic performance went up. (Fuller disclosure: Vadim Nikitine, the Flamboyan Foundation’s cofounder, serves on Rare’s board.)

The Power of Moments packages together countless hours of research and interviews, as well as dozens of illustrative examples, in digestible, accessible, and entertaining prose. Most of the people it features aren’t celebrities or icons, notwithstanding the example of US Congressman John Lewis, who, along with other burgeoning leaders of the civil rights movement, actually rehearsed showing courage in trainings led by Methodist minister James Lawson before challenging segregation at a Nashville lunch counter in 1960. The book’s other stars are regular people who had their own moments of inspiration and dared to try something new. The authors succeed by demonstrating that everyone has the power to engineer such powerful moments for others.

Moments offers something for everyone—medical practitioners rethinking the patient experience, corporate leaders re-imagining staff engagement, small businesses looking to differentiate themselves, teachers crafting more memorable lessons. Like Switch and Made to Stick, two of the authors’ previous books, The Power of Moments is particularly useful for the social sector, in which change agents face daunting challenges in the fight for social justice, economic equality, and environmental protection. All those desperate for blueprints for creating the extraordinary should read this book.