The Gap And The Gain

How Your Brain Sabotages Your Happiness

I Still Haven't Found What I am Looking For

The Gap And The Gain. Graphic

"The Gap and The Gain" is the big idea of a book by executive coach Dan Sullivan and psychologist Dan Hardy about how we measure our progress in the pursuit of big goals and the effect that has on our happiness and overall well being.

Dan Sullivan's focus is on high achieving business people which is not surprising given that he is a very successful executive coach charging very high fees for his services.

I am writing about this is because the basic idea of the gap and the gain has a far wider application than executive coaching and touches on something that affects many, if not most, of us.

    We are hardwired to measure our progress in any and all areas of life where we have goals and aspirations. We can't not do it.

    But what we measure and how we measure matters because our default progress measurement setting leads to self sabotage and results in deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with our lives.

Goal oriented people - which is most of us - have an ideal that they are moving towards. This ideal is a moving target that is always out of reach and their measurement of progress always shows that they have fallen short. Their mindset is one of "stuck in seeking". This is the gap.

In contrast, happy contented people measure their progress against their former selves and where they have come from. This is the gain.

You can see this illustrated in the schematic above.

The Gap

  • A forward measurement. It measures the distance between where we are now and where we think we want to be - which is always and ideal goal and by its very nature is always a moving target that remains out of reach.
  • An external measurement. It measures against something that is external to us and to which we have an attachment.
  • A mindset of avoiding now to get to there.
  • A mentality of lack, scarcity and "not having".

The Gain

  • A backwards measurement. It measures your progress to date about where you have from.
  • An internal measurement. It is a self-referential measurement. You don't measure against your ideals nor do you compare yourself to anything that is external to you. You define your progress.
  • Something that you know you don't need. You don't have an unhealthy attachment to the pursuit of your goals.
  • A mindset of self determination. You define what success means to you.

Courtesy of Dan Sullivan and "The Strategic Coach" you can download this free illustrated ebook presentation of The Gap And The Gain.

How Your Lizard Brain Sabotages Your Happiness

How Your Brain Sabotages Your Happiness. Graphic

The fundamental problem is that we are hardwired to the gap as our default setting.

Why? Because this is the function and purpose of our amygdala aka "The Lizard Brain" which is responsible for our instinctive drives.

As Seth Godwin pithily put it:

"The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry and horny"!

The lizard brain doesn't think reflectively it reacts automatically to what it sees in front of it. The result of these primal drives is that:

  • Our default setting is: "What can go wrong?" Our conscious mind and our ego get involved and "thinking mind" starts a thought stream of anxiety, insecurity and loss of control.
  • Our problem-solving drive kicks in. We feel compelled to do something.
  • We then feel compelled to measure our progress. We default to the ideal we see in front of us.
  • We are hardwired for immediate gratification. This stresses us because we live in a deferred gratification environment.

All of this gets further compounded as our egos get involved and we self identify with our measurements.

Before long we are in downward spiral of anxiety and suffering and we become controlled by our thoughts on the ferris wheel of suffering.

Redefining The Gap And The Gain

Resolving How Your Brain Sabotages Your Happiness


A Model For Maintaining An Ideal And Measuring Progress

What has become known "The Stockdale Paradox" offers us a model for maintaining an ideal and measuring progress.

It's named after the late James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval commander and prisoner of war during the American-Vietnam war. It is the strategy that enabled Stockdale to survive 8 years of imprisonment and torture.

The usual context of these principles is in times of prolonged and seemingly never-ending hardship, set-backs, suffering and distress.

But in my view this is an apt model for the gap and gain concept:

    "The Stockdale Paradox" applied to the "Gap and Gain" concept means that we hold onto a belief in an ideal that we know we will one day realise, but:

    [1] Without ever measuring our progress towards it.

    [2] Whilst we face the realities, and respond to the requirements, of the present moment.

What Progress To Measure And When?

We have already established that:

  1. The forward and external measurement of progress  - the gap mindset -  doesn't help because it leads to self sabotage of happiness and peace of mind.
  2. The backwards and internal measurement of progress  - the gain mindset - is self referential and self determined.

There is a further measure of progress that deals with the lizard brain and that give the ego something useful to do and shuts it up, and that is:

[1] Focus on The Process Not The Ideal 

Shift your focus from the long-term ideal to a daily routine that will realise that ideal.

As James Clear puts in The Evolution of Anxiety:

  • "Instead of worrying about living longer, focus on taking a walk each day.
  • Instead of worrying about whether your child will get a college scholarship, focus on how much time they spend studying today.
  • Instead of worrying about losing enough weight for the wedding, focus on cooking a healthy dinner tonight.

The key insight that makes this strategy work is making sure your daily routine both rewards you right away - immediate return -  and resolves your future problems - delayed return."

[2] Measure The Small Steps In The Process

Without measurement you have no feedback.

James Clear:"The first thing you can do is measure something:

  • You can’t know for certain how much money you will have in retirement, but you can remove some uncertainty from the situation by measuring how much you save each month.
  • You can’t be sure that you’ll get a job after graduation, but you can track how often you reach out to companies about internships.
  • You can’t predict when you find love, but you can pay attention to how many times you introduce yourself to someone new.

The act of measurement takes an unknown quantity and makes it known.

  • When you measure something, you immediately become more certain about the situation.
  • Measurement won’t magically solve your problems, but it will clarify the situation, pull you out of the black box of worry and uncertainty, and help you get a grip on what is actually happening."

    You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results. [James Clear]

Recommended Reading:

The Stockdale Paradox - How To Deal With The Attrition Factor

Delayed Gratification - Your Brain Is Not Evolved To Wait

How To Benefit From The Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

The Long Game - Delay Gains Now To Get More Later

The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled - When Playing The Long Game

Return from "The Gap And The Gain" to : Mental Models

English Chinese (Traditional) Russian French German Italian Spanish Vietnamese


  1. How Do I Change And Why Is It So Hard?

    We Would Rather Die Than Change, And We Usually Do In my experience, the vast majority of people who say they want to change don’t change. Most people reading this won’t change because they don’t real…

    Read More

  2. The Illusion Of A Separate Self - Windows 11 With Self Awareness!

    Beyond the content of your mind you are so much more than you think you are. When we talk of "myself" this is the conventional way of referring to our self image which is in fact the ego's constructio…

    Read More

  3. Finite And Infinite Games - Dazed, Confused & Ultimately Transcendent

    This is not an instruction manual, it is a wake up call! Over this past week I have read Professor James Carse's highly regarded "Finite And Infinite Games - A Vision Of Life As Play And Possibility"

    Read More

  4. The Gap And The Gain - How Your Brain Sabotages Your Happiness

    How Your Lizard Brain Sabotages Your Happiness We are hardwired to measure our progress in any and all areas of life where we have goals and aspirations. We can't not do it. But what we measure and ho…

    Read More

  5. How To Wake Up - 4 Simple Practices To Help You Wake Up Now

    So What Exactly Does It Mean to Wake Up - What Is "Enlightenment"? There is nothing magical, mystical or mysterious about waking up we’re actually having glimpses of enlightenment all the time. Enligh…

    Read More

  6. Situational Communication - Different Strokes For Different Folks

    Situational communication is about taking account of 3 often ignored factors about the other person. You are a situational communicator when you recognise that effective communication is not an event…

    Read More

  7. How To Influence Without Authority - 6 Key Tips

    The secret to how to influence without authority is that you get what you really want by giving other people what they really want. We live in an interconnected world and knowing how to influence with…

    Read More

  8. Change Questions To Change Your Outcomes

    Asking The Right Questions Is Critical For A Successful Change. Every time we initiate a significant change - whether in our personal life or in an organisation - we will most likely over-estimate our…

    Read More

  9. Group Culture - The Invisible Software That Rules Your Life

    Group culture is: "How we do things round here". We like to see ourselves as free agents making our own choices and living authentically but the reality is that The Matrix has many layers and we are u…

    Read More

  10. Why Getting From A to B Is Not Aways A Straight Line

    In circumstances of significant change, the progress from A to B will not be in a straight line. We run our lives largely on auto-pilot. In most circumstances your experience of getting from A to B is…

    Read More

  11. The Art Of Persuasion Planning For Success - Here's How To Do It!

    To be successful in the art of persuasion you must ensure that certain things happen. To be successful in the art of persuasion you must establish a framework of what has to happen to get you to that…

    Read More

  12. The Art Of Persuasion Advanced Communication Skills - Gaining Buyin

    Create The Environment Where They Want To Buyin to Your Proposal In order to build the win-win you have to uncover what it is that the other person really wants or needs, and to do that you have to as…

    Read More

  13. The Art Of Persuasion The One Fundamental Principle - Create A Win-Win

    The art of persuasion is based on the simple idea that you get what you want by enabling the other party to get what they want. Being a nice friendly person with good inter-personal skills may be a go…

    Read More

  14. Communication Persuasion And Change - Key Skills To Survive & Succeed

    It's not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those who are most responsive to change, the most persuasive, and the best communicators. We are living in an age of unprecedented ch…

    Read More

  15. The Eisenhower Box - What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent

    What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent And What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important. The Eisenhower Box is a time management and decision-making model devised by President Dwight Eisenhower to help him prioriti…

    Read More

  16. Zen Enlightenment [Satori] - The Stink Of Zen

    Lost In Our Delusions About Enlightenment. There is something in human nature - a desire to glamorise, sanctify, objectify and idolise – that elevates people who have offered deep insights to the huma…

    Read More

  17. 5 Zen Mindsets For Mastery - In Any Area Of Your Life

    The Wisdom Of A Person Who Masters In Any Art Is Reflected In Their Every Attitude. The state and quality of your mind has a very large bearing on the quality of your performance in any area of life t…

    Read More

  18. Dealing With The Toxicity Of Online Dating - 6 Key Tips From A Clinical Psychologist

    Toxicity Is The Price Tag Of Accessibility. In the early days of online dating, users were vetted and had to go through a registration process and agree to comply with a code of conduct designed to en…

    Read More

  19. Why Understanding Ergodicity Is Critical To Your Long Term Survival

    How Not To Be Fooled By Randomness. Ergodicity is an ugly word from the world of mathematics. It is an umbrella term for two sets of conditions of probability and outcome. These two conditions form th…

    Read More

  20. Dealing With Imposter Syndrome - Ego Is The Enemy

    How You Frame A Situation Has A Profound Impact On How You Respond To It Emotionally. Imposter syndrome is a psycho-emotional experience of a fear of being found out as incompetent despite ongoing evi…

    Read More

  21. The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled

    Issues You'll Face When Playing The Long Game. The challenges of the road less traveled is loosely based around the phrase popularised by M.Scott Peck with his book "The Road Less Traveled". This arti…

    Read More

  22. How To Benefit From the Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

    These Unseen Margins Can Have A Very Dramatic Impact On Your Life. To understand how to benefit from the unseen margins we need to start by understanding what they are and where we find them. In this…

    Read More

  23. The Art Of Thinking Clearly - How To Do More Than Just Survive And Reproduce

    3 Key Tips The art of thinking clearly starts with the sobering realisation that our brains are designed to achieve two things: Survival and Reproduction! 98% of our thinking is unconscious, automatic…

    Read More

  24. Algorithms to Live By - 5 Useful Rules Of Thumb

    5 Useful Heuristics From Algorithms To Live By The thesis of the book "Algorithms to Live By" is that algorithms developed for computers can be used by people in everyday life in a wide range of situa…

    Read More

  25. Finding Signal In The Noise - How To Avoid The Noise Bottleneck

    The Art Of Being Wise Is The Art Of Knowing What To Overlook. We are blessed and cursed to live in the digital age. We have access to more information than we can possibly handle yet we struggle to fi…

    Read More

  26. The Checklist Manifesto - Your Personal Safety Net

    A Checklist Is A Safety Net That Encourages Better Results And Prevents Avoidable Mistakes. The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correc…

    Read More

  27. How Not To Be Stupid - 4 Key Tips

    How To Avoid The 7 Causes Of Everyday Stupidity. We are all capable of everyday stupidity as we undertake routine tasks in our business and working lives and also in our personal lives. This is not ab…

    Read More

  28. Beginners Mind And The Voice Of Experience

    Only The Experts Survived Evolution. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." These are the famous words of Shunryu Suzuki in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Min…

    Read More

  29. The Art Of Being Alone Is A Skill

    Let's Make Today A Good Day. You may not have chosen the condition of being alone, and it may have been imposed upon you by circumstances beyond your control, but your response to the situation is wit…

    Read More

  30. Intuition & Anxiety - Are There Angels Or Devils Calling Here?

    How To Tell The Difference Between Intuition and Anxiety. How do you know whether the voice of your intuition is real or just the product of your inner anxiety? We all struggle with these inner voices…

    Read More

Get new posts by email:


Support This Site