In their book, The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath discuss peak experiences. Peak experiences are characterized by anything that is semi-rare, sticks out in your mind as unique or different or unexpected, positive or negative, and makes you look back on it as a time in your life where change occurred. Some of these are searing experiences, positively searing experiences. These are the ones we seek. Some of these are negative experiences we wish to overcome. We can spend a lot of our lives trying hard to beat them and overcome them. Let’s take a closer look at examples of these experiences and what they can mean to us while we’re going through them.
A day spent at the amusement park may scare you. (The very idea of spending the day at an amusement park may scare you.) There are the rides, attractions, and shows. There are all those kids (some screaming and crying and otherwise complaining). There are the long lines. There are the souvenirs. There’s the heat. There’s the cotton candy and other junk foods built to wreck you. Some people think amusement parks are worse than their actual work, like they should be paid instead of pay to enter them. It’s a funny notion, when amusement parks are intended for recreation. Amusement parks are another rare experience — some might say Peak Experience (positive or negative) — that challenge us. A day spent at an amusement park is so different from an otherwise normal day at work or at home that, whether a good or bad collective experience transpires, we remember it well. (We typically remember the bad collective experience better over the good, unfortunately. But the bad experience always makes for a good story.) Nonetheless, bad experiences can make for negative peak experiences. It all depends upon your attitude.
We should try our best to create peak experiences more frequently for these are the truly memorable ones. This is especially true for businesses that wish to stick out in customers’ minds in a positive way. Retail businesses can designate a certain percentage of goods to give away at their employees’ discretion. This creates high engagement not only for the customer, but for the employee as well. They get to give perceived value away for free and create a great experience. This is similar to the customer at Starbucks paying for the next person’s order, but done so by the cashier instead. “It’s on us” are powerful words in retail stores and in customers’ minds, especially when it is unexpected. Never underestimate the power of free. Restaurants can also benefit by creating loyal customers through an unexpected free round of drinks or a dessert on the house. People remember these small acts of generosity just as they remember neglected disservice by the waitstaff.
In the summer of 2015, I took my family to Universal Studios in southern CA. It was a hot, blistering day. The theme park was jammed up despite our thinking we would outthink the crowd (which is strange thinking as theme parks are almost always jammed up, especially in the summer). We made our way to the Mummy ride, which had about a 45 minute wait. After waiting for ten minutes or so, a Universal employee came up to us and said to come with her as she had something to show us. She brought us in the back door to the Mummy ride to show us the behind-the scenes of the attraction: all the computers, operators, and machinations required to make the Mummy ride work all day every day. We saw certain angles of the ride and people riding the ride that most don’t get to see. She then left us off next in line to ride, giving us complete preferential treatment we did not pay for. After questioning her, she said that the employees are allowed to offer this treatment to a few families per day at their own discretion so as to give a specific, memorable experience while at Universal. I remember it years later as rare and valuable and meaningful, something completely unexpected.
Peak experiences boost sensory appeal, which is why the amusement park example above works so well. Theme parks, like Las Vegas, put us on sensory overload. Anything multi sensory is bound to reach high levels of memory. While low sensory experiences like a day spent in a typical school classroom are mundane and usual. If you seek to create lasting memories, boosting sensory appeal is a must. Teach the class outside for the day. Or, plan a trip to Las Vegas.
The Las Vegas Strip throws just about every sensory appeal boost it can at its visitors. From the lights to the tall buildings to the restaurants and bars to the side-of-the-building advertising, it is all designed to keep you engaged and coming back. There’s nothing like Las Vegas and its sensory appeal elsewhere in the U.S. (Sorry, A.C.) Despite the late nights, the partying, and gambling, it works in its imprinting of memories. Even “bad nights” in Las Vegas are both memorable and hazy. Movies are made about them. People talk about them for months afterward and recall them when planning the next Vegas trip. People even complain about Vegas and a poor experience there and yet they find themselves going back there again. It draws people in with its sensory appeal tractor beam and releases them into the casinos and restaurants with certain high stakes and high priced steaks, respectively.
What’s at stake? Peak experiences are further boosted by high stakes. What are we risking in this experience? What’s to gain? Bragging rights? Overcoming fear? A solid story of exceptional performance? High stakes or skin in the game keep us on high alert, ready to act. These factors keep the game interesting and engaging. Public performances, like speaking or playing sports, offer such stakes. We want to perform well because we’re on stage in front others. Our pride is on the line. High stakes not only cause us to act, but they cause us to care about how well we act. Not everything we do can have high stakes, which makes the times where we do have a lot on the line more memorable. Caring about performance is enhanced.
Look at public speaking. It’s a great example of high stakes because there’s a lot on the line: pride; overcoming fear; bragging rights; career enhancement; potentially flopping; speaking fees; competition; potential book deals. Again, most people are too scared to take on these assignments. They view them as too risky or not their style. So, they defer to others. Those who view public speaking as great opportunities for the aforementioned stakes of performances get that it is a peak experience (and rather rare opportunity) to win. Like a high stakes table in Las Vegas, there is a lot on the line. These high stakes and automatic boost of sensory appeal (being on stage) make us hone in on practice and performance to improve. We want to be good. We want to be seen as competent. We want people to root for us. We want to be the perceived expert delivering an important message. So, we’ll practice — a lot. We want to own our talk. Public speaking is a peak experience. The more we seek it out, scary as it might be, the more engaged in the work we become, the more peak experiences we have.
These peak experiences are key to our level of engagement of difficulty. Usually the more difficult the thing — unless deemed impossible by our standards — the more engaging the activity. We like to take on challenges. We enjoy figuring things out on our own. The ambitious among us like tough nuts. Give us the hard things and let us take a crack at them. These hard or scary things can readily turn into peak experiences for us if we’re tenacious and stick with them. Plus they are more memorable because we’re engaged with them.
What peak experiences have you had lately? What have you done lately that was truly memorable? What made it stick out? Its difficulty? The creativity you needed to tap into to complete it? The incredible sensory appeal of the thing? What was it? Plus, how did it make you feel?
A friend just spent 10 days in Disney Orlando. He said he and his family absolutely loved it. He spoke highly about the beautiful grounds, the relaxing stay, the incredible help, and the lasting memories he created with his family. Disney Imagineers are masters at creating peak experiences. This isn’t just a product, a movie, or a souvenir shop. They’re creating peak experiences daily, ones that people tell others about. They are disciplined in what they do from keeping the grounds pristine to trying to keep the lines shorter to ensuring people have a fun, safe, and memorable experience during their stay. They’re even concerned about the food. No detail is too small for the imagineers to deal with to ensure a happy stay for a family. It is no wonder they sell high ticket packages again and again. They’re creating lasting memories for families. Even after the kids are grown and out of the house, parents come back to relive them. That’s powerful.
Family vacations typically make for great peak experiences because of the change of context, the heightened sensory boost (Disney, amusement parks), stakes (time & money), and even doing something different than last time. They make for lasting memories because of the positive and negative effects the experience generates. Everyone remembers National Lampoon’s Vacation because of the crazy experiences Chevy Chase’s character encounters with his family over the road. We quote it. We play along with it. We identify with it. We still laugh at it even though we’ve seen it 100 times.