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Editor’s note: I wrote this column on the train to New Jersey to visit my father in the hospital after I heard his health took a turn for the worse. He passed away less than 24 hours after I arrived, and he was surrounded by several close family members (myself included) in his final moments.

I’ll have much more to say about Dr. Daniel Berkowitz, who I knew as Dad, in my eulogy, and probably in future columns. It still felt fitting to keep this edition as-is, written before I could process how little time he had left.

This newsletter is published a day early, arriving in your inbox just before the funeral; if you’re curious to join virtually, the service will be streamed at https://www.wjcenter.org/wjclive/ Tuesday, 12/6 around 10:30am EST. 

In the meantime, this edition is dedicated to my dad:
Daniel Berkowitz
B: 5.1.1940, Siberia
D: 12.5.2021, New Jersey

During this time of personal and professional transitions, I’m stuck thinking about the peak-end rule and how it applies in contexts far beyond those originally intended.

I’m writing this essay on a train to New Jersey to visit my ailing father. The WiFi is off, and it feels right to keep this essay raw.

I remember the broad brush of it from Daniel Kahneman’s social psychology bible, Thinking Fast and Slow. The peak-end rule is based on his work with Barbara Fredrickson to describe how we remember experiences.

The rule says that we remember an experience based on the most salient moment of it – usually the highlight – and how it ended.

I remember my trip to Egypt, for example, based on how it felt standing inside the Great Pyramid, and then how it felt as I wrapped up the trip on my birthday, going from Abu Simbel back to Cairo for a bizarre but vivid dinner. That’s an overwhelmingly positive halo across the whole trip.

I remember my first job as a mix between what it was like joking around with my college suitemate who I was able to get hired as an intern there, along with the last day of packing my stuff in a garbage bag when they unceremoniously fired me. That memory isn’t as good.

A job already feels like an ambitious application of the peak-end rule. An example Kahneman gives in the book is from a colonoscopy. The idea is that if you end a painful procedure in a positive way, the memory of it can be encoded as far less uncomfortable than it was.

Maybe the colonoscopy example is a reason I’m thinking of the rule right now. My dad practiced as a gastroenterologist for 50 years.

What if we widen the colonoscope?

Instead of looking up our own butts (literally and metaphorically), let’s take in a broader view.

How does the peak-end rule measure a person’s life?

That seems like a question for novelists, or at least for the most introspective among us to assess about ourselves.

Let’s narrow the lens slightly.

How does the peak-end rule measure a relationship, especially one that ended or is going through a transition to another phase?

That’s what I was thinking about on the walk to Penn Station to catch this train. How would the peak-end rule measure my time with my father?

That I didn’t get hit by a cab or distracted pigeon on the way to the station is as close as I’ve ever come to a miracle.

What would the peak of my relationship with my father be?

And does that peak carry a positive or negative emotional charge?

As I walked to Penn, I was thinking of what the positives could be – his jokes, almost all inappropriate, and most involving animals in compromising positions; family holidays where he served as the patriarch at the head of the table; the trips with him to Haagen-Dazs in Mamaroneck Village; trips to visit his mom in Atlantic City.

There are all those memories charged with a +6, a +7, a +8.

And yet…

There are some of those -8s, a couple of -9s, and maybe one or two -10s that are hard to shake.

How does one determine the peak?

How we celebrate the end of life seems to be designed around the peak-end rule. Few speak ill of those who pass, so we gloss over the darker pages of the biography and instead err on the side of hagiography.

A hero, like Representative John Lewis, is remembered as a saint.

A flawed person is remembered as a person who happened to be flawed.

The peak-end rule affects our memories of practically everything, and thus it is one of those hidden forces that shapes who we are.

To think back on a marriage that ends, is the peak the wedding? Probably not – those are a lot of work and full of stress. Perhaps the honeymoon. You should hope it wasn’t the first date. The birth or adoption of a child, or welcoming a pet, could be a peak – but it could also be what exposes a rift in the relationship.

And then, did the marriage end with a transition to a supportive friendship or to an acrimonious conflagration? A positive ending can make it easier to feel like it was all worthwhile. And that end can be remembered even more positively if it’s what paves the way for one to grow into a new relationship where there are higher peaks to climb.

To talk about work now feels prosaic after all of this, but we are not separate professional and personal selves, or emotional and cognitive selves, or romantic and platonic selves. We are multitudes.

I think back to jobs I’ve held and how high those peaks were. I’ve left some triumphantly, and other times, I’ve felt left for dead. There are victories I savor from all of them. The end tempers the memories.

Let’s return to the colonoscopy example; I’m a little too proud to be a gastroenterologist’s son. My first PowerPoint presentation was literally a story about a bunch of toy intestines.

The professional equivalent of getting a colonoscopy for many of us might be giving a slide-heavy presentation, and such a presentation can be designed with a peak the audience savors and a flourish at the end so that it lands the way you hope it will.

We have control over the peak-end rule more than we realize.

What about your own experiences with the peak-end rule?

Does it hold up?

How can you engineer it for experiences you create and even in your own relationships?

It’s so powerful, so simple, and so hard to harness.

You need to make sure there’s that highlight you never want someone to forget. But also pay a lot of attention to how it all –

David

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