Higher Ed Differentiation and 'The Power of Moments'

The potential and the difficulty of making big little changes on our campuses.

December 3, 2017

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Published in October of 2017.

At the beginning of each academic year our president hosts a College wide community cookout. Hamburgers and hot dogs are grilled.  Music is played.  Students, faculty, and staff get to hang out in a relaxed atmosphere - eating and chatting with each other.

There is a cost to serving everyone at our College a free lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers. The benefits of this investment, however, seem to far outweigh the costs. This is an event where everyone on our campus is equal. First year students are waiting in the same line for burgers as senior faculty and campus leadership. Everyone is sitting at the same communal tables.  Breaking bread (or bun) together is amongst the best ways that I know to bind a community. The good feeling seems to last well into the academic term.

Reading the Heath brothers new book The Power of Moments provides some research-based empirical grounding as to the value of seemingly small things, such as a campus-wide cookout. Like all good popular nonfiction, and the Heath brothers have this format down, The Power of Moments synthesizes a wide body of academic research in order to make a big and non-intuitive argument. Here, the the big and non-intuitive argument is that our brains are wired to focus on peaks and pits.  We remember the highs and lows much more than the normal and the average. We assign too much weight to the fleetingly different experience, and not enough to what is consistently regular.

The lesson for those of us who wish to differentiate our colleges and universities, and hence attract more students and faculty (and maybe even staff..nevermind), is to put more focus on the power of moments. The Heath brothers recommend doing the little hard things.  This means pushing past the inertia of the status quo, and making the case to devote the time and resources and focus to do small things differently.

To make this concrete, someone who is charge of the campus tour and who read The Power of Moments might decide to make one element of the prospective student visit significantly different from that of other schools. Rather than revamping the entire campus tour experience, the focus (at least at first) would be to make aspect of visiting a campus noticeably special.

Some schools have already taken this advice. When we toured Lynn University for my younger daughter in 2016 we arrived on campus to find a reserved parking space with her name prominently displayed. That is the only time that I’ve been to a college campus where a reserved and personalized parking space was waiting.

Maybe you are thinking that the big argument in The Power of Moments does not go much beyond basic common sense. Sonny and Cher sang It’s The Little Things back in the 1960s.  (You can even check out the video).   What is motivating about the Power of Moments is that the Heath brothers are able to persuasively make the case for the degree of impact that small experiences can bring, while also recognizing that bringing about even big small changes is extraordinarily difficult.

How hard would it be to bring make a big change in a small moment of interaction within your campus organization?

What may be an example of a little thing that you could change bigly?

Can you think of other examples beyond cookouts and parking spaces that stand out as peak (or pit) moments on your campus?

What are you reading?


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