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Defining Moments and Memory Dividends

I didn’t receive flowers on Valentine’s Day this year. Or last year. Or the year before that. In fact for as long as I have been with my husband I have never received flowers from him for any occasion. He finds the act of giving flowers “fiscally irresponsible”. [He finds fireworks fiscally irresponsible too, but that’s a topic for another blog about a different holiday.]

His philosophy: Flowers die. “Why would I give you something that has such a short shelf life?”, he argues.  He would rather demonstrate his affection for me by planning and executing an experience, a moment that yields memory dividends for years to come.

A memory dividend is the re-experiencing of an experience; a return on investment you get from the creation of memories. Creating defining moments and memory dividends is my husband’s superpower.

For Christmas many years ago, we agreed that in lieu of exchanging physical gifts we would alternate planning monthly Los Angeles adventures over the course of the next year, combining each with iconic LA food establishments. In essence we would be tourists in our own town. My husband is an LA native and I have lived in the City of Angels for more than 3 decades, yet there were so many things to do and places to see in LA that neither of us had ever experienced. This “gift” was fun and unique - something we could do for each other and enjoy together. We created magical moments and have reaped memory dividends from this monthly adventure in spades. For the curious, a complete list is below.

How, as leaders, can we create cherished memory dividends and defining moments for our employees and / or our customers?  How can we cultivate the ability to see moments, to grasp moments, and to create moments? Imagine the power that lies in the ability to recognize, plan for and execute defining moments that become memory dividends in the workplace. With worldwide employee engagement near record lows, having the wisdom and forethought to be the architect of significant and meaningful moments could be the missing ingredient in the secret sauce for retention and recruitment.

In the book The Power of Moments authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe the four elements of a defining moment, a positive moment that lasts in our memory long after the event, a memory that never loses its delight in revisiting despite how long ago it occurred. Their framework for creating defining moments is Elevation, Pride, Insight, and Connection. Moments that matter include one or more of these elements:

ELEVATION: Defining moments rise above the everyday. They provoke not just transient happiness, but memorable delight. To construct elevated moments, we must boost sensory pleasures, and if possible add an element of surprise.

An example of Elevation the Heath brothers showcase in their book is “The Popsicle Hotline” at the Magic Castle Hotel in Los Angeles [Did you know the Magic Castle was also a hotel? I did not, but I googled it and its true!] When a guest is at the hotel pool they can pick up the red phone [think Bat phone] and a voice on the other end responds “Popsicle Hotline - we will be right there!” In a moment an employee dressed in a tuxedo comes to you poolside and delivers a popsicle on a silver tray, free of charge. [I added the tuxedo part for visual effect. But do you know who does wear a tuxedo? The gentleman who delivers meals to admitted patients at UCLA Medical Center in Westwood. A lovely way to elevate a dining experience when and where you least expect it.]

PRIDE: Defining moments capture us at our best—moments of achievement, moments of courage. Employees who celebrate a milestone anniversary, earn a new certificate, or reign victorious at a company-wide ping pong tournament. (Shout out to ImmPACT Bio!)  Have you ever witnessed a cancer survivor “Ring the Bell”? A lymphoma patient “Light the Night"? Walked alongside a surviving spouse in a 3-day Breast Cancer Walk? These are the lump-in-the-throat, I-can’t-speak-or-I-will-lose-it defining moments that overflow with such courage and pride our lives are infinitely richer for it.

Pre-pandemic, the organization I worked for was hosting an annual awards celebration for those who had been secretly nominated for and would receive a National Employee Excellence Award. All leaders were asked to attend the ceremony in support of their colleagues, so I drove the 63 miles and took my seat in back. The Director of Planning and Acquisition took to the podium and began a narrative highlighting the contributions of an individual that sounded awfully similar to the value I [believed I] added to the organization. When she announced my name as the recipient of the National Employee Excellence Award that year I. Was. Stunned. And proud. And if I am being honest this recognition, this defining moment, re-ignited and elevated my commitment to the important work I was doing and the people I was impacting.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I had the opportunity to facilitate a retreat a few weeks ago for a group of leaders in Northern California. One of the participants shared she had recently passed her 20th anniversary with the company, and how disappointed and hurt she felt when it went unrecognized. A lost opportunity to create a defining moment for an otherwise proud and dedicated employee for sure, but also a moment that could have created inspiration and aspiration for less senior staff who might have envisioned that could be them one day. As leaders we should prioritize celebrating milestones with great moments.

INSIGHT: Defining moments rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world. Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations. Whether its taking a risk, stretching ourselves beyond what we believe our limitations to be, or working with a coach or mentor to offer different perspectives, we gain insights on our capabilities and values. The brave heart that opens him or herself up to a 360 evaluation to gain insight about how they show up at work, and what they might do differently to build trust with coworkers. The bookclubs that exist in the workplace for the benefit of a possible shift in our collective perspective. The weekly 1:1’s with a thoughtful and trusted supervisor who cares about our growth and development. All of these manufactured moments provide an opportunity to create deeper awareness within ourselves and others.

CONNECTION: Defining moments are social: weddings, graduations, baptisms, vacations, work triumphs, bar and bat mitzvahs, awards ceremonies, sporting events, charity walks. These moments are strengthened because we share them with others. Sharing a defining moment with others allows the moment to multiply in the best of ways.

Photographs epitomize a memory dividend and defining moment. We frame and display them in our homes and offices, share them on social media so we can relive the moment again and again, and our family and friends can too. How do you know if you are witness to a defining moment? Look for the cell phones: people intuitively pull out their phones to take a picture of something they feel has the potential for memory dividend greatness.

My husband has a framed photograph of himself with his [then and now] idol Sandy Koufax.  This photo was taken around the age of 8 or 9 years old when his mother had somehow arranged for him to play a round of golf with the legendary LA Dodger pitcher. I’m sketchy on all the details, but this photograph would, without a doubt, be the one thing he saves in a fire. It was an elevated experience, it was was steeped in connection and insight, to an icon but also to a loving mother who knew just how special this moment would be for her son, and he was proud. So so proud.

Moments that create memory dividends are critical because the “everyday” is not enough – not enough to give us meaning; to keep us motivated and engaged.  We need special moments; moments with power to touch us, inspire us, change us. Moments have the ability to feed our relationships, fueling us for the long and sometimes bumpy haul.

Memory dividend moments need to “break the script.”  In other words, they have to have some level of the unexpected and a degree of unreasonableness. [I mean, seriously…who would wait 4 hours in line for fried chicken?! Asking for a friend.]

Memory dividend moments weave together to create the timeline of your personal AND professional life.

PS: I can buy my own flowers. Someone should really write a song about that.


ONLY IN LA: A YEAR OF MEMORY DIVIDENDS Hollywood Sign Hike | Pink’s Hotdogs  | Jay Leno Live Studio Taping | SmokeHouse Restaurant | Segway Tour of the Venice Canals  | Randy’s Donuts | Palm Springs Aerial Tram | Hadley’s Fruit Orchards Date Shakes | Culver City Stairs  | Honey’s Kettle Fried Chicken | Long Beach Gondolas | Apple Pan | Museum of Tolerance | Johnnie’s Pastrami | Los Angeles Private Helicopter Tour | Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ | Los Angeles Conservancy Architectural Tour | Grand Central Market EggSlut | Battleship Iowa Tour | Tito’s Tacos | US Bank Tower Slide [OUE Skyspace] |  Philippe the Original French Dip | Tournament of Roses Rose Parade | Howlin Ray’s Hot Chicken

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