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Shaping Past Memories

On Seinfeld, whenever George Costanza managed to pull a funny joke he would leave the room immediately.

George knew that people would remember him as a funny guy if the last thing he did was make them laugh. Our tendency to disproportionately remember experiences by their end (and peaks) is a cognitive bias called the Peak-End Rule.

By shaping the very end of an experience, you get to shape people’s memory of that entire experience. Improve the last 1% and the preceding 99% improve automatically.

George’s strategy breaks apart in one fundamental way: we can’t eject ourselves at the peak of most situations. You can’t end a meeting, a vacation, or a relationship on a whim.

But you can always choose to invest your time and energy to make the end of an experience as good as it can be, whenever that end comes about. For example:

  • You can prepare a joke or a thoughtful thing to say at the end of an important meeting

  • You can plan something creative or wild for your last vacation day instead of just chilling around

  • You can write to your ex what you loved about them the day they become your ex (or what you hated about them for the reverse effect)

Paradoxically, our natural tendency is to be at our worst behavior at the end of things. We can’t wait to move on and we have no energy left to be our very best.

If you can resist this tendency, you can shape the memory of your entire life in your own mind and in the minds of others.

This concept applies to startups in 3 major ways.

Users. How can you shape the memory of every user and every experience? At my startup, we would get on calls with users who had bad experiences. We would apologize and give them a gift card to sweeten the deal. What they then remembered was being taken care of.

Employees. How can you shape the memory of an employee at the end of their tenure at your startup? Whenever an employee would leave my startup we would bring the whole team together and prepare a fun trivia about them. They remembered that the team knew them well.

You. How can you shape your own memory of your startup experience? My co-founder and I wrote this letter when we shut down our startup. We did it for ourselves, to remember the grueling 5 years as the best experience of our lives.

You can find your own ways to shape past memories. My favorite way is to write a letter. It forces me to be thoughtful and dedicate my time. It allows me to shape the narrative of what our shared memory is going to be.

Shaping past memories can feel immoral. But if it improves the memory of my entire life ever so slightly, then so be it.


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