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We Are What We Remember

Memory is an intrinsic part of our life experience. It is critical for learning, and without memories we would have no sense of self. Understanding why some memories stick better than others, as well as accepting their fluidity, helps us reduce conflict and better appreciate just how much our memories impact our lives.

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“Which of our memories are true and which are not is something we may never know. It doesn’t change who we are.”

Memories can be so vivid. Let’s say you are spending time with your sibling and reflecting on your past when suddenly a memory pops up. Even though it’s about events that occurred twenty years ago, it seems like it happened yesterday. The sounds and smells pop into your mind. You remember what you were wearing, the color of the flowers on the table. You chuckle and share your memory with your sibling. But they stare at you and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” What?

Memory discrepancies happen all the time, but we have a hard time accepting that our memories are rarely accurate. Because we’ve been conditioned to think of our memories like video recordings or data stored in the cloud, we assert that our rememberings are the correct ones. Anyone who remembers the situation differently must be wrong.

Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved. In Adventures in Memory, writer Hilde Østby and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby present a fascinating journey through all aspects of memory. Their stories and investigations provide great insight into how memory works; and how our capacity for memory is an integral part of the human condition, and how a better understanding of memory helps us avoid the conflicts we create when we insist that what we remember is right.

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Memory and learning

“One thing that aging doesn’t diminish is the wisdom we have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Our memories, dynamic and changing though they may be, are with us for the duration of our lives. Unless you’ve experienced brain trauma, you learn new things and store at least some of what you learn in memory.

Memory is an obvious component of learning, but we don’t often think of it that way. When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.

The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created “when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it.” They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus “will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she’s never been interested in before.” Because the diver already knows a lot about diving, and because she loves it and is motivated to learn more, new knowledge about diving will easily attach itself to the memory network she already has about the subject.

While studying people who seem to have amazing memories, as measured by the sheer amount they can recall with accuracy, one of the conclusions the Østbys reach is “that many people who rely on their memories don’t use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They’re just passionate about what they do.” The more meaningful the topics and the more we are invested in truly learning, the higher the chances are that we will convert new information into lasting memory. Also, the more we learn, the more we will remember. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how much we can put into memory.

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How we build our narratives

The experience of being a human is inseparable from our ability to remember. You can’t build relationships without memories. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t remember the past.

The memories we hold on to early on have a huge impact on the ones we retain as we progress through life. “When memories enter our brain,” the Østbys explain, “they attach themselves to similar memories: ones from the same environment, or that involve the same feeling, the same music, or the same significant moment in history. Memories seldom swim around without connections.” Thus, a memory is significantly more likely to stick around if it can attach itself to something. A new experience that has very little in common with the narrative we’ve constructed of ourselves is harder to retain in memory.

As we get older, our new memories tend to reinforce what we already think of ourselves. “Memory is self-serving,” the Østbys write. “Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.

Why is it so much easier to remember the details of a vacation or a fight we’ve had with our partner than the details of a physics lesson or the plot of a classic novel? “The fate of a memory is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute meaningfully to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds.” We need not beat ourselves up because we have a hard time remembering names or birthdays. Rather, we can accept that the triggers for the creation of a memory and its retention are related to how it speaks to the narrative we maintain about ourselves. This view of memory suggests that to better retain information, we can try to make knowing that information part of our identity. We don’t try to remember physics equations for the sake of it, but rather because in our personal narrative, we are someone who knows a lot about physics.

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Memory, imagination, and fluidity

Our ability to imagine is based, in part, on our ability to remember. The connection works on two levels.

The first, the Østbys write, is that “our memories are the fuel for our imagination.” What we remember about the past informs a lot of what we can imagine about the future. Whether it’s snippets from movies we’ve seen or activities we’ve done, it’s our ability to remember the experiences we’ve had that provide the foundation for our imagination.

Second, there is a physical connection between memory and imagination. “The process that gives us vivid memories is the same as the one that we use to imagine the future.” We use the same parts of the brain when we immerse ourselves in an event from our past as we do when we create a vision for our future. Thus, one of the conclusions of Adventures in Memory is that “as far as our brains are concerned, the past and future are almost the same.” In terms of how they can feel to us, memories and the products of imagination are not that different.

The interplay between past and future, between memory and imagination, impacts the formation of memories themselves. Memory “is a living organism,” the Østbys explain, “always absorbing images, and when new elements are added, they are sewn into the original memory as seamlessly as only our imagination can do.”

One of the most important lessons from the book is to change up the analogies we use to understand memory. Memories are not like movies, exactly the same no matter how many times you watch them. Nor are they like files stored in a computer, unchanging data saved for when we might want to retrieve it. Memories, like the rest of our biology, are fluid.

Memory is more like live theater, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces,” the Østbys write. “Each and every one of our memories is a mix of fact and fiction. In most memories the central story is based on true events, but it’s still reconstructed every time we recall it. In these reconstructions, we fill in the gaps with probable facts. We subconsciously pick up details from a sort-of memory prop room.

Understanding our memory more like a theater production, where the version you see in London’s West End isn’t going to be exactly the same as the one you see on Broadway, helps us let go of attaching a judgment of accuracy to what we remember. It’s okay to find out when reminiscing with friends that you have different memories of the same day. It’s also acceptable that two people will have different memories of the events leading to their divorce, or that business partners will have different memories of the terms they agreed to at the start of the partnership. The more you get used to the fluidity of your memories, the more the differences in recollections become sources of understanding instead of points of contention. What people communicate about what they remember can give you insight into their attitudes, beliefs, and values.

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Conclusion

New memories build on the ones that are already there. The more we know, the easier it is to remember the new things we learn. But we have to be careful and recognize that our tendency is to reinforce the narrative we’ve already built. Brand new information is harder to retain, but sometimes we need to make the effort.

Finally, memories are important not only for learning and remembering but also because they form the basis of what we can imagine and create. In so many ways, we are what we remember. Accepting that our vivid memories can be very different from those who were in the same situation helps us reduce the conflict that comes with insisting that our memories must always be correct.

“Jootsing”: The Key to Creativity

Creativity can seem like a mysterious process. But many of the most creative people understand that you can actually break it down into a simple formula, involving what researcher Douglas Hofstadter calls “jootsing.” Here’s how understanding systems can help us think more creatively.

“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.” —G.K. Chesterton

We can break the creative process down into the following three steps:

  1. Gain a deep understanding of a particular system and its rules.
  2. Step outside of that system and look for something surprising that subverts its rules.
  3. Use what you find as the basis for making something new and creative.

It may not be simple to do, but it is reliable and repeatable.

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett describes this process of understanding a system in order to step outside of it as “jootsing,” using a term coined by Douglas Hofstadter. “Jootsing” means “jumping out of the system.”

Dennett explains that jootsing is the method behind creativity in science, philosophy, and the arts: “Creativity, that ardently sought but only rarely found virtue, often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs.” The rules within a system could be things like the idea that a painting must have a frame, a haiku must only have seventeen syllables, or a depiction of landscape must have a blue sky. But galleries hang paintings without frames all the time. Haiku without seventeen syllables win international contests. And landscape paintings don’t need to contain a sky, let alone a blue one.

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Creativity, as Dennett describes it, is not about pure novelty. The concept of jootsing shows us that constraints and restrictions are essential for creativity.

Breaking rules you don’t know exist is not a statement. It’s a common refrain that much of modern art could be the work of a five-year-old. Yet while a five-year-old could produce a random combination of elements that looks similar to a famous work of modern art, it would not be creative in the same way because the child would not be jootsing. They wouldn’t have an understanding of the system they now sought to subvert.

Limitations are essential because they give us a starting point and a shape to work against.

While amateurs may attempt to start from scratch when trying to make something creative in a new area, professionals know they must first get in touch with the existing territory. Before even contemplating their own work, they take the time to master the conventional ways of doing things, to know what the standards are, and to become well-versed in the types of work considered exemplary. Doing so can take years or even the best part of a career. Dennett summarizes: “It helps to know the tradition if you want to subvert it. That’s why so few dabblers or novices succeed in coming up with anything truly creative.”

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Understanding a system first is necessary for creativity for two reasons. First, it provides something comprehensible to use as a starting point, and second, it makes it possible to come up with something more interesting or useful. If you try to start a creative effort from nothing, you’ll end up with mere chaos.

Dennett writes: “Sit down at a piano and try to come up with a good new melody and you soon discover how hard it is. All the keys are available, in any combination you choose, but until you can find something to lean on, some style or genre or pattern to lay down and exploit a bit, or allude to, before you twist it, you will come up with nothing but noise.

Creativity often begins with accidents that end up showing a new possibility or reveal that violating a particular rule isn’t as harmful as expected. Elsewhere in the book, Dennett suggests that any computer model intended to generate creativity must include mistakes and randomness, “junk lying around that your creative process can bump into, noises that your creative process can’t help overhearing.

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Most of us say we want to be creative—and we want the people we work with and for to be creative. The concept of jootsing reveals why we often end up preventing that from happening. Creativity is impossible without in some way going against rules that exist for a good reason.

Psychologists Jacob Getzels and Phillip Jackson studied creativity in the 1950s. Their findings were repeated across many studies and described what was termed as the Getzels-Jackson effect: “The vast majority—98 percent—of teachers say creating is so important that it should be taught daily, but when tested, they nearly always favor less creative children over more creative children.”

Kevin Ashton, in How to Fly a Horse, explains why. Teachers favor less creative children “because people who are more creative also tend to be more playful, unconventional, and unpredictable, and all of this makes them harder to control. No matter how much we say we value creation, deep down, most of us value control more. And so we fear change and favor familiarity. Rejecting is a reflex.” Ashton notes that the Getzels-Jackson effect is also present in the organizations we are a part of in adulthood. When the same tests are applied to decision-makers and authority figures in business, science, and government, the results are the same: they all say they value creation, but it turns out they don’t value creators.

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If you want people to be creative, you can’t complain or punish them when they question a system that is “typically so entrenched that it is as invisible as the air you breathe,” as Dennett says. You need to permit a lot of exploration, including ideas that don’t work out. Not everything outside of a system proves worth pursuing. And often the rules that are most beneficial to break are those that seem the most load-bearing, as if meddling with them will cause the whole system to collapse. It might—or it might make it much better.

You also need to permit the making of mistakes if you want to foster creativity, because that often ends up leading to new discoveries. Dennett writes, “The exploitation of accidents is the key to creativity, whether what is being made is a new genome, a new behavior, or a new melody.” Most accidents never end up being profitable or valuable in a measurable way. But they’re necessary because they’re part of the process of developing something new. Accidents fuel creativity.

In the book Loonshots, Safi Bahcall explores, among other ideas, how to nurture and develop those seemingly crazy ideas that turn out to be paradigm-shifting innovations. He gives many examples of now ubiquitous technologies that were initially laughed at, rejected, or buried. He notes that it’s not easy to immediately buy in to radical developments, and if we want to have environments where creating is possible, then we have to give creativity space and understanding. “It’s worth keeping in mind,” he says, “that revving the creative engine to fire at higher speeds . . . means more ideas and more experiments, which also means, inevitably, more failed experiments.

As individuals, if we want to be creative, we need to give ourselves space to play and experiment without a set agenda. Amos Tversky famously said that the secret to doing good work is being a little unemployed so you always have hours in the day to waste as you wish. During that wasted time, you’ll likely have your best, most creative ideas.

If your schedule is crammed with only room for what’s productive in an obvious way, you’ll have a hard time seeing outside of the existing system.

The Best of The The Knowledge Project 2020

One of the best ways to learn is a good conversation.

While there are many advantages to a good conversation, perhaps the best is that you can benefit from the lessons that other people have already paid the price for. Of course, that’s not all. Good conversations can also offer a new way to interpret your past experiences, discover something new, and remind us of something we already know.

A good conversation updates the software in your brain. But not all updates are the same. Learning more isn’t simply a matter of having more conversations, but rather getting more out of each conversation that you are apart of. Deep conversations with ‘people that do’ offer the richest source of learning. Conversations that skim the surface, on the other hand, only offer the illusion of learning.

With that in mind, we’d like to invite you to join us in the top conversations we had on The Knowledge Project in 2020.

It’s time to listen and learn.

  • Episode 82: Bill Ackman: Getting Back Up — Legendary activist investor, Bill Ackman talks about lessons he’s learned growing up, raising a family, what drives him forward and back up from failure, consuming information and ideas, and facing criticism.
  • Episode 94: Chamath Palihapitiya: Understanding Yourself — Founder and CEO of Social Capital, Chamath Palihapitiya sits down with Shane Parrish to chat about what it means to be an observer of the present, how to think in first principles, the psychology of successful investing, his thoughts on the best public company CEOs and much more.
  • Episode 74: Embracing Confusion with Jeff Hunter — CEO of Talentism, Jeff Hunter, teaches how to rewrite damaging narratives that hold us back, how to give and receive helpful feedback, and why confusion can be a good thing.
  • Episode 80: Developing the Leader in You with John Maxwell — Leadership expert John Maxwell breaks down the four traits every successful person possesses and how to awaken the leader within you, no matter what your job title says.
  • Episode 85: Bethany McLean: Crafting a Narrative — Best-selling author of The Smartest Guys in the Room and All the Devils are Here, Bethany McLean, discusses how to write a story, the behaviors of CEO’s, visionaries and fraudsters and so much more.

Honorary mention to Derek Sivers: Innovation Versus Imitation [The Knowledge Project Ep. #88], who was only 131 downloads away from making the list.

In other news this year, we released a TKP youtube channel with full-length videos of our conversations so you can see the guest, as well as a “Clips” channel, where we are building the world’s best repository of nugget-sized information you can use in work and life.

If you’re still curious, check out the 2019 list.

Our Favorite Farnam Street Posts From 2020

At the end of each year, the FS team takes time to reflect on the work we did and what we learned from it. Here’s a selection of our favorite articles from 2020 – and why we think they’re worth a second read.

Much of what we do at FS is about reflection. Learning requires reflection; time to sit, think, and process. There is no doubt that 2020 was tumultuous and challenged us in unexpected ways. What we anticipated and planned for on January 1 was not what we faced the rest of the year. Many of us were busy adjusting and thus might not have had the opportunity to digest and reflect on ideas as much as in the past.

At FS, we know it’s hard to find a signal in all the noise we experience on a daily basis.

To close out the year on the blog, we have decided to look back and share our favorite posts, as well as why we connected with them or how they helped us. Here are each team member’s choices from our 2020 posts.

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Adam

In no way do I consider myself to be an athlete, but I do expect great results when it comes to my work. The article The Inner Game: Why Trying Too Hard can be Counterproductive brought to light some of the internal struggles I deal with when trying to achieve my goals. There are days when I can achieve a “flow-state” in my work, whether it’s shooting or editing video or something else. Other days it’s a battle with self-doubt and self-sabotage despite all the external obstacles I’ve overcome. Finding harmony between the two is on-going, and despite me not being an athlete I plan on winning the inner game.

‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’ – Jean-Luc Godard

As someone whose job requires creativity I constantly struggle with “Not Invented Here Syndrome.” Trying to come up with an original idea, a different angle, some never before seen concept was just how I assumed all the world-renowned doers and thinkers thought. I never really considered the concept of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants and drawing on our experiences and the raw materials around us to create something. Reflecting on my body of work, it seems obvious now that most of my productions draw from people who I admire, who have taught me, or inspirations sparked by someone else’s creation. Going forward I want to continue to create and who knows, maybe one day I can provide a shoulder to stand on. After all, I’m 6’4”, so I’ve got the giant part down.

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Vicky

One of my favorite articles from this year is Appearances vs Experiences: What Really Makes Us Happy. For me, this article tells a tale of what I try to embrace in my day to day life. Getting caught up in what we think will make us happy can lead us to bypass what truly will. Sometimes we can base decisions and choices on the immediate pleasure we get or expect without looking at the bigger picture or long-term effects. The experience can put things into a perspective we can grasp, while an appearance can just be an illusion.

How do you “win the game of life”? By deciding how you’ll play. In Finite and Infinite Games: Two Ways to Play the Game of Life, I love the perspective shift I feel when I think about how you can play this game. What truly measures success? Does the game end there? By setting new goals and thinking that life can be infinite, we can win by playing, instead of playing to win. For me, this brings on a great perspective of acquiring experience and knowledge over wealth and possessions so I can keep playing.

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Rosie

Daniel Kahneman has said that the main lesson we should learn from surprising events is that the world is surprising. Yet when disasters happen, we often focus on particulars and miss that wider lesson. In the article Stop Preparing For The Last Disaster, we discussed how we can respond to unexpected events by becoming more resilient in general. History may well repeat itself, but we never know which rerun we’re watching until after the matter.

One theme we explored on the blog throughout this year was community and the connections we form with other people. We looked at what brings us together and what drives us apart – as well as what that costs us, how we can make peace with solitude, and how we can rebuild connections.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human is a personal favorite article from 2020. In it, we looked at William H. McNeill’s theory that dancing together to music creates powerful bonds between people, leading to social cohesion and cooperative behavior. I liked this article because McNeill’s ideas suggest a simple, free, universally useful way to overcome disconnection.

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Rhiannon

This year we started to write about more concrete examples of using mental models in common life situations. We so often hear from readers that they love the idea of mental models but have challenges in understanding how to apply them. Our first effort at exploring a situation through the lens of different mental models, how to use them in charged situations, was an exciting step in the evolution of the FS blog.

Like most people, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a backdrop to my year. The challenges were incredible, and the speed of the changes they required were sometimes overwhelming. It felt like so much uncharted territory. One of the reasons I enjoyed the article Why We Feel at Home in a Crisis, was the context it provided for tumultuous times. Reading about the Blitz, a period of history I have always found fascinating, as well as appreciating the good that can come from a crisis, was the perfect solution to the disorientation I experienced at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Shane

As much as this year was about responding to crisis, it was also a test of our resilience. It’s less about what happens to you and more about how you respond. At FS, I frequently thought about how well we’d built our margin of safety, and planned for a wide range of outcomes. 2020 reinforced how important it is to preserve optionality. In a crisis, the more options you have, the greater your chance of survival. Options are the most important resource you can store up.

As many of you know, one of our goals at FS is to master the best of what other people have already figured out. I drew inspiration from how others have kept their teams performing during challenges, including from this post on leadership lessons from Jean Renoir.

From the whole team at FS, thank you to all of our readers for your support and engagement! We know it’s been a busy year for everyone, and we don’t take a minute of the time you’ve spent with us for granted. It was amazing to know that, even in these times of uncertainty, you were on the journey with us to learn and grow. To become better people and live a more meaningful life.

Highlights From 2020’s Farnam Street “Ask Me Anything” Sessions

Each month, Farnam Street members receive an exclusive chance to get personalized advice and answers to their burning questions from an expert guest. In 2020, we hosted “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) sessions with guests from a wide range of fields, including journalism, psychology, baking, business, and more. In this post, we’ve picked out a selection of highlights from their most practical and insightful answers. To gain access to 25+ past AMA sessions and participate in future ones, become a Farnam Street member. If you’re already a member, you can view all AMAs here.

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AMA Highlights Part 1

Shane Parrish, FS Founder – Jan 2020

I don’t want to optimize for work, and I don’t want to optimize for family time. I want to optimize for life. I get one life and I don’t want to look back at ninety yelling at myself because I regret doing or not doing something. I always try to keep that end in mind.

Anese Cavanaugh, IEP Method Founder – Feb 2020

Culture is the energy, the container, we create together to do our best work, show up as our best selves, be productive, and feel safe. It’s how we feel when we’re doing our work together.

Jeff Hunter, Talentism Founder – March 2020

All of us do work that matters. It may matter in a little way, it may matter in a big way. We’re surrounded by signals all the time that say some work is more valuable than others. But as I like to say, the person who cleans the bathroom and does that excellently is probably more valuable than somebody who’s the head of an organization and does it terribly.

Katherine Eban, Investigative Journalist – April 2020

As a journalist doing a book, it’s like a marriage; and I know this sounds a little cynical but,
marriages only get worse as they go along so you have to be really in love to start with. So, there’s got to be a real love there with the topic because the project and the reporting and the work is only going to get deeper and worse the further you get into the project. Start from a good strong place.

Ozan Varol, Law Professor – May 2020

Research shows that the most original breakthrough creative ideas tend to come up in those moments of slack, when you’re letting your subconscious work, as opposed to moments of hard labor.

Tarek Malouf, Hummingbird Bakery Founder – June 2020

Before worrying about having 50 items on your menu, make sure you’re doing the first 10 items really well… Your product has to be great and you have to believe in the product and you need to be true to it. Don’t try and do too much.

Marc Tarpenning, Tesla Co-Founder – July 2020

Long-term thinking is really this idea of always keeping as much optionality in the future as you can. Because you don’t know what the future is going to bring. So what you don’t want to do is constrain your future possible options because you’re on some trajectory.

Jesse Mecham, YNAB Founder – August 2020

Budgeting just means you’re deciding. We don’t want people spending less, we really want people spending without guilt. That approach of thinking you’re going to push through and restrict yourself just fits and starts. People do that again and again. Give yourself room to learn how you spend money and learn what you care about, and slowly as you work the four rules, you’ve found something sustainable.

Gretchen Rubin, Happiness Project Author – Sept 2020

People who have habits that work for them have a happier, healthier, more productive, more creative life. People whose habits don’t work for them have a lot more challenges. It’s a question of thinking more about how to make something [which makes you happier] into a habit.

Stefanie Johnson, Management Professor – Oct 2020

One of the amazing things about inclusion is that it’s really something that any of us can do. It’s not like you have to be a leader to make someone feel seen. Any of us can do that.

Laura Vanderkam, Time Management Expert – Dec 2020

I really suggest that people [track] an entire week, all 168 hours. You do not need to look for a particularly typical week because there are no typical weeks. What we will learn in the course of tracking any week is what finds space in your life, even when things are not typical. And figuring out what a typical week looks like is more of a judgment call than it is a statement about reality. Just choose any week.

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Check out the Farnam Street Youtube channel for part 2 and part 3.

You’re Only As Good As Your Worst Day

We tend to measure performance by what happens when things are going well. Yet how people, organizations, companies, leaders, and other things do on their best day isn’t all that instructive. To find the truth, we need to look at what happens on the worst day.

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. ”—Publilius Syrus

We laud athletes on a winning streak, startups with a skyrocketing valuation, hedge funds seeing record-breaking returns, and so on. But it’s easy to look good when everything goes according to plan and circumstances are calm. Anyone can succeed for a while, even if it’s just out of pure luck. It’s no great feat to do well if you’re not being challenged or tested. Watching what happens during a downswing is far more instructive.

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Products and services are only as good as they are when they break, not when everything is functioning fine.

When a program stops working, do you face a baffling error message with no further guidance or clear instructions for how to get help? Is customer service quick and easy to access at any time or does it require you to jump through endless convoluted hoops? Even if you’ve had a positive view of a product or service for years, a problem that takes forever to fix or a hostile response when you ask for help will no doubt make you take your business elsewhere.

From a customer standpoint, companies are only as good as how they behave in a public relations crisis.

Do they shirk blame and try to pin it elsewhere or do they take responsibility? Do they try to cover up what happened or do they come forward with the full truth? Do they ignore any damages or do they promise to make things better for everyone affected—no matter the cost? Reputations are fragile. One incident of bad behavior will linger in the minds of customers for a long time.

From a financial standpoint, companies prove their worth when they show how they cope when something fundamental changes in the market or there’s a financial crisis.

Do they keep persisting with the old business model under the illusion that what worked before should work again or do they reimagine their approach? Do they fire staff to preserve CEO bonuses or do they play the long game to ensure they’ll be able to attract top talent in the future? Do they crumble when there’s a powerful new competitor or do they rise to the challenge? Like companies, investors might be able to perform well in ideal conditions due to luck. But when the market crashes and there’s blood in the streets, very few will know how to cope or be prepared. Only the smartest will know how to survive or even profit.

Leaders are only as good as how they lead during times of uncertainty and fear.

Do they hide away from public sight or do they serve as a reassuring, sympathetic presence that brings everyone together? Do they do what’s defensible or what’s best for everyone in the long run? Are they forced to react in the moment or were they already prepared? Ask anyone to name the finest leaders in the history of their country and they’re not likely to name those who were in power during calm, peaceful times. They’ll name those who were at the helm during wars, economic crises, pandemics, natural disasters, and so on—those who never wavered from a vision and whose consistent, empathetic appearances gave people a sense of hope.

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As individuals, we tell people the most about who we are when everything goes wrong. These times are also when we stand to learn the most about ourselves.

Your kids might not remember how you behaved on a relaxed, sunny Saturday when work went well all week and you had little on your mind beyond playing with them. But they’re sure to remember how you behaved on the day when you’d lost your job due to a recession, you’d just had an argument with your partner, an unexpected bill arrived in the mail that morning, and then someone spilled spaghetti sauce on the couch. That’s the day when your behavior has the most to show them about what to model in the future.

Your partner might not remember how you treated them when you were lying on a beach on holiday together with all of your worries far away and a good book in hand. But they’re sure to remember how you treated them when you had your worst disagreement ever, over a problem that seemed insurmountable and involved complex emotions. That’s the moment when they might well make a decision about whether they’re in this for the long haul.

Your boss might not remember the work you did on an average week when everything went to plan. But they’re sure to remember the time when you stepped up, stretched the limits of your abilities, and delivered what seemed impossible at short notice while everything around you was on fire. That’s what they’ll recall when thinking about what you’re capable of.

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You’re only as good as your worst day. Not because what you do the rest of the time doesn’t matter. Not because you should be expected to be perfect under immense stress or to behave according to plan when everything goes awry. But because what you do on your worst day is impossible to fake. It’s honest signaling. There’s little time for posturing or stalling. On your worst day, you reveal whether you’ve been planning for the possibility of disaster or just coasting along enjoying the good times. Your plans and preparation (or lack thereof) show how much you really care about the people who depend on you. You get to build and strengthen bonds in ways that will last a lifetime, or you risk destroying relationships in moments. You get to build trust and respect or you might break what you have irreparably.

Your worst day is a chance to show your best qualities, to stand out, and to learn an enormous amount about yourself. Very few people plan or prepare for what they’ll do and how they’ll act during those times. Those who do might well end up turning their worst day into their best.