Creating Memorable Moments

What is the right balance for spending effort to creating more meaningful and defining moments in our work and personal life?

This question arose as I read “The Power of Moments” by Chip and Dan Heath. They define a moment as a “short experience that is both memorable and meaningful”. A core idea from the book is to think about how we can be the authors of these moments. However, it takes extra time and energy to instrument these moments, which can get in the way of our already busy lives.

One example I found interesting was about transforming a classroom experience. Students in a high school English class were reading “The Lord of the Flies” when they received an official-looking legal complaint saying that the author would be on trial for misrepresenting human nature in the book. Each student had a role to play in the trial (witness, attorney, or judge) and two months to prepare before going to an actual courtroom to decide the author’s guilt. The students acted as famous witnesses from literature and history (ranging from Gandhi to Darth Vader) and gave testimonials on the nature of humanity. This trial turned a normal English class into one of the most memorable and interesting school experiences for many students who participated.

This was an exceptional outcome that took a substantial amount of effort to create. It made me reflect on how to balance effort with creating moments. For every potential moment, there seems to be a threshold of how much effort I need to expend to create a moment that is “memorable,” and that level of effort varies based on the context. Additionally, the more novel the activity is to me, the more likely it’ll be memorable. I’ve created a rough graph to explore this idea.

Graph of effort vs likelihood moment is memorable

This graph estimates how likely a moment is to be memorable given the combination of the amount of effort we spent to create the situation and how novel it is. From reading the book and my own experiences, there appears to be a threshold where after you spend a certain amount of effort to make a special experience above what you would normally do, it starts to become much more likely the moment will be memorable. I’ve termed this the “memorable threshold”.

On most of our activities, we spend a small amount of effort and follow our usual script, such as going out to lunch at our local restaurant (below the memorable threshold). This can be a good experience, but is unlikely to be memorable. On the other end of the spectrum are events like the classroom trial or getting married. These events are more novel and take substantially more effort to create and consequently they are much more likely to be memorable, but it would be infeasible to plan such large experiences every day, even if you wanted to.

Even if we were to repeat a memorable event on a regular basis, the novelty would be reduced and these events would become more normal and less likely to be memorable. However, we could spend extra effort to take the event to an even greater level or change up the format to make it novel again. Letting more time pass between events can also increase the novelty; a meal at your local restaurant could be quite memorable if you go out to eat once a year.

Another key point from the book is to watch out for the voice of “reasonableness”. This voice reminds you something is impractical or “impossible” since it takes a lot of resources or is against the way things are normally done, and that voice can stop potential moments in their tracks. I’ve definitely experienced the voice of “reasonableness” many times (including being the one to state it) and I think we should be on guard against it when we’re trying to make something really memorable.  

While I’m not sure where the correct balance lies in creating moments, I feel in most cases we are not spending enough effort to make memorable and meaningful moments and we would benefit from creating more of these moments. When I look back on the years, these memorable events stand out from the blur of time flowing by and were enriching and meaningful experiences in my life.

The Art of Questing

People have been engaging in grand challenges or “quests” since antiquity, in some cases defining their lives around these quests, such as pilgrims on a spiritual journey or explorers seeking new trade routes. With the digital age, you can easily discover more examples of various quests that people pursue, which vary radically in style and scope. Modern examples include Alastair Humphreys who bicycled around the world or Scott Young who completed the entire online MIT Computer Science curriculum for a four-year bachelor’s degree in a year.

Grand quests appeal to me; my first was the pursuit of my doctorate, which took six years to complete. Committing myself to getting a PhD provided direction amid a flood of potential life options; I was able to judge opportunities to pursue based on whether they helped me make progress in my quest. Though perhaps “provided direction” is an inaccurate description. Getting a PhD is akin to bicycling across the United States in the dark with a compass that only intermittently functions. It involves a lot of sustained effort and you end up going down false paths that require you to backtrack and recalibrate your direction while occasionally having to deal with a friendly thunderstorm.

While completing my doctorate I experienced tremendous personal and professional growth. I became more proficient and confident in software development, design, teaching, and the research process, among other things. The experience also left me with many work opportunities, such as designing future software products at Apple, continuing on as an educational researcher, and various entrepreneurial paths.

However, this new flood of opportunities was both a blessing and a curse. After finishing my quest I felt directionless, akin to someone is trying to decide where to go for a vacation but considering every place in the world as a potential destination. After having a clear goal for so long, the range of possibilities of what to do next was overwhelming.

Since completing my PhD, I have been in an exploratory mode with my newfound freedom, continuing to work as a researcher while exploring side projects and experiencing life in various cities. However, recently I have returned to the idea of pursuing another quest. I was pleased to discover that Chris Guillebeau, an author and entrepreneur I admire for his novel The $100 Startup, recently wrote a book about questing called The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life. Chris completed a quest to visit every country before he was 35 and in this book he analyzes himself and several others as case studies for embarking on a quest. Throughout the book he breaks down how to find and structure a quest and offers advice on how to handle the process during and after you finish.

Chris defined a quest as “A journey towards something specific, with a number of challenges throughout”. In the book he noted that quests take a number of different forms:

With any major decision, such as undertaking a grand quest, there are a number of advantages and disadvantages:

Pros

  1. Provides direction: your goal helps you orient yourself and can bring a sense of purpose to your life. This can reduce the time and emotional turmoil you may feel in trying to decide your next steps and help you to avoid wasting time on tasks that distract from your goal.
  2. Rallying force: you are able to craft a clear way to describe what you care about and what you are doing. If your quest benefits from community involvement, this makes it easier to attract like-minded individuals who can support your cause or learn from you. Having a clear message increases the positive impact that your quest has on the world, whether through inspiring others to follow in your footsteps or directly helping others.
  3. Accelerated growth: these grand challenges are tasks that will push you outside of your comfort zone repeatedly, leaving you no choice but to grow. Depending on the type of quest, you can increase your self-confidence, hone a new set of skills, and increase your ability to impact the world.

Cons

  1. Huge opportunity cost: pursuing a grand challenge requires you to choose against many other tasks. For example, you could pursue your career at home, be part of a recreational sports team, and take music lessons all at the same time. However, you could not continue doing all these things if you decided to bicycle across the world.
  2. Reduced flexibility: this follows on the upfront opportunity cost. Having a grand quest that you are pursuing can reduce your ability to pursue alternative paths that could be very rewarding. Of course you can always give up your current quest, but this leads to:
  3. Potential for misery: in the midst of pursuing your quest, you may find yourself hating the day to day life and desire to quit, but continue on because you feel the stakes are too high or you feel too committed to your goal. While there are always rough period in any task, being overly committed can lead to months or even years of misery. I have witnessed friends who are miserable for years while pursuing their doctorate yet they feel unable to quit for a multitude of reasons. While some claim it was all worth it in the end, others are quite adamant that it was a waste of time and they should have left earlier.

So while embarking on a quest can change your life, it is important to acknowledge the sacrifices it requires. Chris’s Guillebeau’s book, The Happiness of Pursuit, is a great overview of the topic and a wonderful read to learn more about questing. If you are considering pursuing your own quest, it would be helpful to find other questers who are further along a similar path and get a sense of their daily life and the challenges they have to face.

Usability Testing Resources

I recently conducted a workshop at the WebCamp Zagreb, giving an introduction to usability testing. In preparing for the workshop I compiled a list of books and articles that I felt could be helpful for anyone interested in learning more about user-centered design and usability testing. Hopefully these resources will help you out as your discover more about usability testing.
(Note: The books are affiliate links!)

Usability Testing

Articles

Books

Online Usability Testing

  • UserTesting.com – A website where you can hire users do to remote usability testing on your website quickly. They record the user’s screen and the user answers some questions on what is happening. Can be a quick solution if you cannot recruit your own users.
  • loop11.com – Another website that provides remote usability testing.

General Design

Articles

Books

  • Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Great book that details different usability issues found in common items in everyday life, as well as positive examples of how these items can be improved. Reading this can help you think about any sort of product design.
  • Don’t Make Me Think – A short book by Steve Krug that provides an introduction to usability principles.
  • Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction – This is a great textbook written by Shneiderman & Catherine Plaisant for getting an overview and introduction to the field of designing interfaces and human-computer interaction (HCI). This book is often required reading in many undergraduate and graduate HCI courses.