October 11, 2015

Why Life’s Small Moments Often Have Big Consequences

I just finished reading Cissy Houston’s remarkable book Remembering Whitney, which is partly Cissy Houston’s autobiography and partly a story of her daughter Whitney Houston. It is a remarkable book in so many ways!

What makes it most remarkable is Cissy Houston’s ability to recall small, but important, moments in her own life, as well as the life she shared with Whitney Houston. Relative to her own life, she shared several stories about how she would use a new technique in background singing to give a prominent artist’s song more life and richness. She clearly took her craft very seriously, but, more importantly, she opened the minds of the artists she supported as to the potential for their musical performances they had not previously appreciated.

Her story about giving Whitney Houston almost no advance notice about her need to substitute for Cissy in a scheduled performance at a nightclub gave me the chills. It reminded me of so many fictionalized stories in which the understudy gets an opportunity because of the unavailability of the star, except that, in this case, the star deliberately engineered the substitution to give her daughter the best chance to succeed.

I have come to appreciate the preciousness of those highly impactful small moments and small decisions. We are shaped by both the big decisions all of us make and the small moments that have indelible effect on us.

These were some of the big decisions in my life, along with the decision to produce a feature film, and the big moments, but I wanted to share some of the most important small moments, events which look objectively unimportant, but which stuck with me years and even decades later. These small moments are the ones that leaders like Coach Catana Starks create and reinforce, and, in many ways, they often become the foundation for the bigger decisions that people make about their lives.

As I think back on small moments, I think of a handful of events involving my parents, and one involving someone I barely knew. The small moments involving my parents occurred throughout our lives, but a few stand out:

  • At Christmas, when I was seven years old, my mother handed me a gift, a biography of the American Presidents. After I opened it, she told me that it was important for me to remember that I could be the President of the United States or achieve anything I wanted, if I were willing to pay the price. That insight, that we determine what happens to us, has stayed with me.
  • I attended a Christmas gathering at the home of one of my aunts, my sister’s godmother, who gave her more gifts than she gave me. I acted childishly. Hours later, when I was in bed and my room was dark, my Dad came in and quietly explained why that had happened. He talked about the special bond my aunt had as a godparent. I learned that there is an optimal time and place to give anyone advice and counsel. He created a teachable moment, but, more importantly, he taught me how to recognize when there are optimum teachable moments for others.
  • When I was 10 years old, I watched my mother quietly, but firmly, get employees at the New York State Motor Vehicle Bureau to become more sensitive to the public they served by threatening to go to the media and to her elected representatives. She was a role model for both how to get her way without raising her voice, and how to identify the vulnerabilities of other people to get what she wanted.
  • When I was not given the valedictorian honor I deserved at the end of high school, my Dad quietly, but firmly, told me that I had “left too much to chance,” and that I should never let that happen on something that mattered. That lesson stuck with me.
  • When I was a poorly performing high school debater, an older student, who was a debate judge, told me that I was not very good, but could become good through training. That brief conversation taught me that everyone can improve himself or herself with the right kind of structured help. My younger son James had the same kind of inspired conversation with his chess coach Martin Nilsson, who convinced him that he could be great, and helped him realize that dream.

Sometimes we do not even know what effect we have had on people because we do not realize what connects with them. I found out years after I became CEO that my predecessor George Harvey had begun to see me as a possible CEO candidate because of my command of the Legal Department technology on a 30-minute tour I provided him before a holiday party in 1989, five years before the decision was made to consider me for the CEO position.

Stories move us because they create small, teachable moments, as do small symbolic gestures. I recall a conversation in early 2010 in which, at a dinner with Professor Jay Winsten of the Harvard School of Public Health, he stated that the catalytic event that accelerated the adoption of the designated driver concept was the inclusion of five seconds of content about designated drivers on every episode of the popular TV show Cheers. Winsten told me that entertainment changes culture, more so than education, laws and regulations, business success, public service announcements, or broad publicity. That lesson has stayed with me and kept me going on the film, despite the many obstacles I have encountered.

Great teachers, coaches, leaders, and mentors like Coach Catana Starks live in the world of small moments. Contrary to the Hollywood portrayal of inspirational sports films, those small moments are not the motivational locker room speeches before or during an important game, but the encounters that happen well before that. Every film depicts some of those small moments, but Hollywood often does not find the best ones. The reason it does not is that it often looks for them in sports-related interactions that are tied to dramatic events, not the interactions far removed from the prime purpose of coaching assignments.

My favorite example of how a coach routinely changed the course of his athlete’s lives is John Wooden. Although Hollywood films typically portray coaches giving a typical speech at the first day of practice about the athletic challenges their teams would face or about the coach’s requirements and rules, the part of the John Wooden orientation speech every UCLA basketball player routinely mentions in their recollections about him is the one about having clean, dry socks for every game and practice. Wooden included that line in his speech for two reasons:

  • The more tactical reason he gave was that teams have to be able to play an aggressively and run actively the entire game. Sweaty socks lead to blisters, which inhibits performance at the end of games.
  • The more strategic reason for his comments is the lesson about attending to small life habits and getting them right.

Coach Starks had her own John Wooden speech about the team giving her their golf shirts, so that she could launder them the way she had been taught by her grandmother, a commercial laundress. The shirts would stay clean, bright, pressed, and sweat-free longer and help the team perform better. In the film, we have a John Wooden book near her bed, but she was an expert practitioner of the use of small moments in her coaching and teaching.

People judge us by things that occur in the small moments, and often by things we do when we are not conscious of how our actions affect others. Our deeply ingrained habits shape how others think of us more than our conscious actions.

Hollywood studio films often succeed, in spite of themselves, because their filmmakers get the small moments right and touch a responsive chord. It is very difficult to do so, because the tendency is to try to micromanage the responses of audiences around the big messages of a piece of entertainment. However, what most matters are the iconic moments that accompany the smaller messages in an entertainment product.

Those filmmakers, entertainers, teachers, coaches, leaders and mentors, who figure out how to get the small moments, usually succeed. Their work efforts tend to be timeless and valuable to many generations, and become the fodder for inspirational stories.

Our goal is to celebrate Coach Catana Starks, a person who clearly mastered the art of making small moments have big impact.