Engineering Moments


Take a few seconds to close your eyes and think back on an important memory. In that moment, did you feel a sense of elevation? Did you experience insight? Have a sense of pride? Make a connection? In the power of moments, the attributes of powerful moments are understood so that they can be better engineered.

Attribute Impact Chapters
Elevation Creates experiences that rise above the routine. We are engaged, joyful, amazed, motivated. l1
Pride Commemorates achievement. We puff out our chest and lift up our chin l2
Insight Delivers realizations and transformations. We grow l3
Connection Bond us with others. We feel warmth, unity, empathy, validation. l4
  • l1
  • Build Peaks
  • Break the Script
  • l2
  • Trip Over the Truth
  • Stretch for Insight
  • l3
  • Recognize Others
  • Multiply Milestones
  • Practice Courage
  • l4
  • Create Shared Meaning
  • Deepen Ties
  • Making Moments Matter

Moments at work

As a manager, I’m fascinated by how to make moments at work


Moments of elevation are experiences that rise above the routine. They make us feel engaged, joyful, amazed, motivated.

  • Examples: Birthday parties, weddings, football games, public speeches, or spontaneous road trips.

Some activities have built-in peaks, such as games or recitals or celebrations. But other areas of life can fall depressingly flat.

  • High school principal: “We run school like it is nonstop practice. You never get a game.”

Here’s our three-part recipe to create more moments of elevation: (1) Boost the sensory appeal; (2) Raise the stakes; (3) Break the script. Usually elevated moments have 2 or 3 of those traits.

  • The Trial of Human Nature has all three parts: (1) Sensory appeal: The costumes, the real courtroom. (2) Raised stakes: One side will win and capture the glory. (3) Break the script: Everything about the Trial defies the normal rhythms of school.

The third part-break the script-requires special attention. To break the script is to defy people’s expectations of how an experience will unfold. It’s strategic surprise.

  • The Ritz staffers broke the script with their playful photo album for a boy’s lost “Joshie” toy.

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

  • VF Corporation ended its leadership meeting after a few minutes and challenged people to “go outside,” participating in surfing classes or improv comedy.

The most memorable periods of our lives are times when we break the script.

  • Recall the “reminiscence bump,” a period full of novelty: our first kiss, our first job, etc.
  • Novelty actually seems to slow down time. That’s why we feel like time goes faster as we age.

Caution: Even with the simple three-part recipe, moments of elevation can be hard to build. They are no one’s “job” and they are easy to delay or water down.

  • Beware the soul-sucking force of reasonableness: “Couldn’t we just put the Popsicles in a cooler by the ice machine?”

But building peaks is worth the struggle. They provide some of the most memorable moments of our lives.

  • Eugene O’Kelly, in his dying days, found fulfillment in his “Perfect Moments.”


Moments of pride commemorate people’s achievements. We feel our chest puff out and our chin lift.

There are three practical principles we can use to create more moments of pride:

  • (1) Recognize others;
  • (2) Multiply meaningful milestones;
  • (3) Practice courage.

We dramatically under invest in recognition.

  • Researcher Wiley: 80% of supervisors say they frequently express appreciation, while less than 20% of employees agree.

Effective recognition is personal, not programmatic. (“Employee of the Month” doesn’t cut it.)

  • Risinger at Eli Lilly used “tailored rewards” (e.g., Bose headphones) to show his team: I saw what you did and I appreciate it.

Recognition is characterized by a dis-junction: A small investment of effort yields a huge reward for the recipient.

  • Kira Sloop, the middle school student, had her life changed by a music teacher who told her that her voice was beautiful.

To create moments of pride for ourselves, we should multiply meaningful milestones-re-framing a long journey so that it features many “finish lines.”

  • The author Kamb planned ways to “level up”-for instance “Learn how to play ‘Concerning Hobbits’ from The Fellowship of the Ring”-toward his long-term goal of mastering the fiddle.

We can also surface milestones that would have gone unnoticed.

  • What if every member of a youth sports team got a “before-and-after” video of their progress?
  • Number-heavy organizational goals are fine as tools of accountability, but smart leaders surface more motivational milestones en route to the target.

Moments when we display courage make us proud. We never know when courage will be demanded, but we can practice to ensure we’re ready.

  • The protesters involved in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins didn’t just show courage, they rehearsed it.

Practicing courage lets us “pre-load” our responses.

  • Gentile’s approach to ethics says we usually know WHAT is right but don’t know HOW to act.

Courage is contagious; our moments of action can be a defining moment for others.


Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations.

They need not be serendipitous. To deliver moments of insight for others, we can lead them to “trip over the truth,” which means sparking a realization that packs an emotional wallop.

  • Kamal Kar’s CLTS causes communities to trip over the truth of open defecation’s harms.

Tripping over the truth involves (1) a clear insight (2) compressed in time and (3) discovered by the audience itself.

  • In the “Dream Exercise,” professors discover they’re spending no time in class on their most important goals.

To produce moments of self-insight, we need to stretch: placing ourselves in new situations that expose us to the risk of failure.

  • Lea Chadwell took a risk by opening a bakery. Overwhelmed, she closed it, and in the process learned more about her capabilities and her values.

Mentors can help us stretch further than we thought we could, and in the process they can spark defining moments.

  • The psychiatry resident Michael Dinneen had a mentor who pushed him to continue working through the night: “He knew I had it in me to make it through that night when I didn’t know that myself.”

The formula for mentorship that leads to self-insight: High standards + assurance + direction + support.

  • Six Sigma expert Ranjani Sreenivasan was pushed by her mentor to develop skills in company operations. “I learned that I’m capable of more than I thought,” she said.

Expecting our mentees to stretch requires us to overcome our natural instinct to protect the people we care about from risk. To insulate them.

  • Spanx founder Sara Blakely’s dad: “What did you guys fail at this week?” He wanted to make it easier (less scary) for his kids to stretch.

The promise of stretching is not success, it’s learning.


Moments of connection bond us with others. We feel warmth, unity, empathy, validation.

To spark moments of connection for groups, we must create shared meaning. That can be accomplished by three strategies: (1) creating a synchronized moment; (2) inviting shared struggle; and (3) connecting to meaning.

  • Sharp’s re-commitment to the customer experience had all three elements: (1) the All-Staff Assembly; (2) the voluntary “Action Teams”; and (3) a call for dramatic improvements in the way customers were cared for.

Groups bond when they struggle together. People will welcome a struggle when it’s their choice to participate, when they’re given autonomy to work, and when the mission is meaningful.

  • Xygalatas’s study of religious devotees concludes that the shared experience of pain can be seen as “social technology to bind in-groups together.”

“Connecting to meaning” reconnects people with the purpose of their efforts. That’s motivating and encourages “above and beyond” work.

  • Hansen’s research: When it comes to performance, strong purpose trumps strong passion.

In individual relationships, we believe that relationships grow closer with time. But that’s not the whole story. Sometimes long relationships reach plateaus. And with the right moment, relationships can deepen quickly.

  • Fisherow and her team turned around the troubled Stanton Elementary School by relying, in part, on short parent-teacher home visits before the start of school.

According to the psychologist Harry Reis, what deepens individual relationships is “responsiveness”: mutual understanding, validation, and caring.

  • Stanton’s teachers showed responsiveness by listening to parents’ hopes for their kids.
  • In health care, caregivers are switching from the question “What’s the matter?” to “What matters to you?”
  • “Baggage-handling” customer service reps validate customers’ past experiences.

Responsiveness coupled with openness leads to intimacy. It happens via “turn-taking.”

  • Art Aron’s 36 Questions experiment leads total strangers to become intimate-in 45 minutes!

Personal notes

Juggling fire and magic are very appealing to me because they generate moments - and moments matter to me.

Stories to Quote:

  • Popsicle Hotline
  • Teachers praising students
  • Couple recording fights in a journal
  • Pastor letting intern give Easter vigil
  • Swirling hair in a glass.
  • List of 100 things you love - in trouble, go over those things.