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The Secret to a Thriving Culture Will Surprise You

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Written by Julie Choi, Founder and CEO of CultureCon 2022 Sponsor, Pointr


I did not have a traditional business education. I went to Juilliard to become a concert pianist. I would practice for hours and hours on a piece of music, working tirelessly on interpretation, tempo and movement.

At Juilliard, the cognitive culture was strong. Everyone abided by the shared principles of hard work and excellence. It’s how we got there. People were focused, prepared to sweat and bleed, and determined to be the best. But I was lonely. Almost all the time.

I remember thinking that music was dead. Stripped of all emotion, and boiled down to mechanics and competition. I remember thinking that the emotional culture was nonexistent, and that no one seemed to notice it. No one, no one at all, knew me.

People were so busy memorizing Rachmaninoff that there was little space in their brains to know and remember things about each other. The stories and lived experiences that make us more than a bundle of atoms. People did not socialize. There was just too much to do.

“Maybe I should have been an orchestral musician,” I thought. “Maybe it’s just a soloist thing. This whole dog-eat-dog.”

I was lonely. I did not feel like I belonged in any sense. It affected my performance and my commitment. I was on the verge of being kicked out. That is until I met Haewon, who made me realize I wasn’t the only one who felt detached from the human component.

Haewon and I were instantly bonded, as if we were two old friends. We shared our secrets, the books we can’t let go of, the joy of food, and what music really means to us. The more time we spent together, the better artists we became. The more secure I felt. The easier it was to remember and perform the hardest pieces.

My whole experience with Haewon led me to the first of a series of revelations that would imprint my future. If my results improved after I met Haewon, then surely, emotions influence commitment, creativity and learning.

The more deeply I explored the connection, the more I realized it was true in neuroscience. Memory and emotion are inextricably linked. They happen in parts of the brain that literally touch.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine actually proved that emotions are linked to the development of key areas of the brain. Experiencing positive emotions showed, on average, a 10% increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.

I realized that a person who feels happier tends to remember more. Which was true of my own experience memorizing Liszt’s concerto at Juilliard after meeting Haewon. I became more and more intrigued by the connection. Better emotions equals better memory. But how about the other way around? Does a better memory generate better emotions too?

Studies have actually shown that training working memory improves emotional regulation. The greater the memory capacity, the better the emotions. The two functions worked together, as a sort of feedback loop.

All around, people are searching for ways to be “happier”. They sell books, pills and advertisements claiming to be a cure-all. My hypothesis is different. Memory is one of the most essential keys to happiness. If you remember more of the things you enjoy, what you’re grateful for, and what excites you about the future, you’re more likely to be positive on a day to day basis.

At that point, I had