I used to believe that life is the result of a series of choices. Made in the spur of the moment or after careful deliberation, forced upon us by action or inaction, I thought the decisions we make determine the life we live. Boy, was I wrong.
Before moving further, I have to give you a fair warning. Reading this article is a lot like seeing your parents having sex: once you see it, you can’t unsee it. There’s a good chance you will never look at life the same again.
If you’re still reading, it’s your fault. You have been warned. Now grab a beer and let me tell you a story that spans over 30 years, involves an evening with lots of booze, and a series of colonoscopies.
A Tale of Two Daddies
For the sake of anonymity, I will change the names and the context of this story, but the essence remains the same.
After a long week, Ben and John hit the bar. They have a good time and drink one or two whiskeys more than they can stomach. Then, like any tough, virile representatives of the strong sex, they end up hugging each other and talking about their childhood.
“My dad worked a lot, John says. Especially when I was young. He was an emergency doctor, so he was doing tons of 24 h shifts and working on weekends. My mum stayed at home. Sometimes she would take me and my sister to the hospital so we could see dad for a bit. But he didn’t really spend much time with the family”.
Ben nods, takes another sip from his drink, then tells his story.
“Oh, my childhood was very different. My dad was always home by noon. I can hardly remember a lunch or dinner when he wasn’t there with me and my mum. He didn’t have to work on weekends, only my mum did sometimes. And they both earned enough to offer me a comfortable living.”
Now I want you to pretend you’re the bartender this evening. Besides charging these guys a few extra drinks because they’re too drunk to notice, what else are you thinking? If you had to guess, which of the two had a closer relationship with his father? I promise I’ll get back to Ben and John before the story ends. But first, let me tell you about some happiness research involving colonoscopies.
Missing Memories and a Colonoscopy
Getting a colonoscopy, even today, isn’t a pleasant experience. It involves lots of laxatives, a 6-foot long tube with a camera, and too much air in all the wrong places. Luckily, they put you under before they start. But back in the old days, it was a different story.
The doctors didn’t use anesthetic. This meant you were awake during the whole procedure, which could last over an hour. Now imagine you’re sitting on that colonoscopy table, experiencing agonizing pain, and there’s a guy with a notepad next to you, asking every minute: “On a scale from 0 to 10, how much does it hurt right now?” That’s what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman did in one of his experiments. Why? He was researching happiness.
I know people say “you have to look for happiness inside you”, but I’m not sure this is what they mean. Nonetheless, Kahneman’s conclusions were fascinating. After a while, he asked the patients again about their experience. For some of them, the procedure was over after four minutes. They got lucky. Other patients had to spend 75 minutes on the table. Which do you think rated the whole experience as more awful? Neither.
In this excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman explains that we have two selves inside our heads: the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. The former lives in the present — he’s the one experiencing the colonoscopy. But the latter is the one keeping a score. He interprets our past experiences, assigns values to them, and makes decisions about the future based on what he remembers. So what did the two selves think of the colonoscopy study?
When the patients were asked how they rated the procedure and if they would do it again, the duration of the agony was irrelevant. The Remembering Self didn’t care how long his sibling had to feel a tube up his rear end. Or maybe he didn’t remember every part of it. But two points were remembered clearly: the most painful moment, and the ending of the procedure. These were the two key moments.
If patient A felt a pain of 5/10 for 20 minutes and patient B felt the same pain for 40 minutes, they were just as likely to repeat the procedure. Their Remembering Self rated them equally. Even more, if patient B ended his 40 minutes of agony on a more positive note, he was more likely to remember it as a better experience.
We don’t remember everything in life. Our memory is selective. And it’s important to know what it selects.
Taking the Red Pill
I read about this research a few years ago and was fascinated by its implications. Right now, your Experiencing Self is the one reading this article and enjoying the experience. But your Remembering Self is the one who, based on your past, decided to read it. So is our Remembering Self more important than our Experiencing Self? Not necessarily. But he is the one calling the shots. He interprets the past and makes decisions for the future. But he won’t be the one experiencing it. Can the Experiencing Self override and interrupt the experience? Or are we just the result of a select few memories that determine the rest of our life?
These were all open questions, until recently. In one late night, between whiskeys and laughter, it finally clicked. And since then, I’ve never looked at life the same again. Let’s get back to our two drunken friends and their childhood memories to find out why.
“Even to this day, I still have a great connection with my father. He calls at least twice every day. Sometimes just to say hi, other times to ask how my day was. And sometimes we just like to sit and talk, to catch up before we are pulled away by some urgent matter in our lives.”
His friend looks at him astonished and says, “Wow, to me this sounds surreal! I can’t even imagine what that would be like. You know, I’ve never been close to my dad. Right now, we’re the closest we have been in years. But even so, we talk maybe once a month and keep it brief.”
At this point, the bartender is intrigued. You finish mixing a cocktail, blow off that blonde who was giving you the sweet eyes, and come closer to hear the rest of the story.
“But you just told me your father used to do all these 24 h shifts and work on weekends. How did you keep so close to each other?”
“Easy: he made every minute count.” He took another sip and you could see his childhood memories vividly flashing behind his glasses. Then he paused a bit, trying to find the right words. “My dad didn’t have a lot of time for us, said John. But when he was with me and my sister, he did his best to make every moment special. When my mom took us to the hospital so we could see him for a few minutes, he made everything exciting. We roamed across the halls and he invented little adventures for us. Sometimes he would rush home for half an hour to grab a bite to eat. But in that half hour he listened to all our tales and problems. Like really listen. He would offer advice, or cheer us up with a funny story. I still remember those conversations to this day. Weird, isn’t it?”
Ben looked at him in awe. Then he thought of his little girl and all the times he couldn’t tuck her in because of work. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.
Putting it All Together
I honestly don’t think we remember all the events of our lives. Probably not even half. And it’s for the best, otherwise our brains would be overwhelmed with past information. Just like the colonoscopy patients, we remember the extremes: the very good or very bad moments, the beginning or the end of an experience. Our brains are wired to focus on the intense moments.
My best example of this is one evening when I was about 15. I got to spend it with my favorite uncle, while his wife was at work. We went out, watched a game and he ordered my favorite junk food. I was even allowed to have a beer. When it got dark, we went back home and watched an action movie. And to top everything off, I was allowed to have ice cream. On the couch. At midnight.
This is one of the fondest memories from my teenage years. All in all, it was less than half a day. But for my teenage self, those hours were magical. I still remember them like it was yesterday. And yes, uncle George is still my favorite uncle.
So how do we put this all together into one actionable plan for an unforgettable life? What do childhood memories, colonoscopies, and midnight ice cream have in common? They all contain extremes. Either good or bad, they have moments of intense feelings. And it’s those feelings that our brains remember and value.
Should we then build a life of extremes, just to make it memorable? Should we have a tray of ice cream every day, or get a colonoscopy every month? Some people do this, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you abuse these principles, your brain will get used to them. Instead, use them to make certain moments unforgettable.
Craft unforgettable experiences
When he was young, Tony Robbins used to be on the road for 200 days in a year. At home, he had a wife and four kids waiting for him. He had to provide for them, but he also wanted to have a close relationship with them. How did he do it? Every time he was home, he did his best to create unforgettable experiences that would bound them as a family. Things that his kids would still remember as adults. And 30 years later, he is still close to his kids. Want to create a lasting bond with someone? Craft unforgettable experiences with them.
When you’re there, be there
We live in stressful and distracting times. There’s always an appointment we have scheduled, a notification we have to check, a piece of news we have to hear. So we slowly forget how to live in the moment. Don’t. The greatest gift you can give someone is your total and undivided attention. This doesn’t mean you stop thinking about the future. But you don’t do it while someone is passionately sharing their thoughts with you. If you decide to listen, then listen fully. If you decide to be with them, then be there fully.
Wherever you are, be there totally.Eckhart Tolle
Learn to bend time
This is something I learned from Derek Sivers. Every time he spends time with his kid, he enters his world. In the world of children, a pebble can become a shiny pearl, a stick can be a magic wand, and waiting for the bus can feel like an eternity. On the other hand, kids can easily spend an hour watching a snail crawl or looking at ants carrying bread crumbs. Time flows differently in their world. But adults are no different. Have you ever heard someone talk about their favorite movie series? They can go on for hours without getting bored. So whenever you want to have a quality experience with someone, enter their world. Bend your time according to the rules of their world. They will be grateful for it. And you will enjoy a very different human experience.
The things you think about the most, and remember best, seem more important to you than other things.Scott Adams
In the end, life isn’t the result of a series of choices, but rather a collection of memorable moments. It’s those moments that your Remembering Self uses to make decisions. You can make a poor decision and make the best of it. Or you can make a sound decision and forget everything about it a year later. But when you’ll be old, looking back on your life, decisions won’t be what you remember. It will be those unique, intense moments that made life worth living. So start crafting them today.