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. Drop The Story - Deal With Your Demons and Transform Your Experience

    Are you living your life from the stories you tell yourself? Learning how to drop the story and deal with that voice in your head can be a game changer. When you can do this you will have a powerful t…

    Read More

  2. Standing In The Gap Between No Longer And Not Yet

    Standing In The Gap In Conditions Of Imposed Change. This is about imposed change and surviving a dire and desperate situation where you are stuck in a difficult or seemingly impossible set of circums…

    Read More

  3. Preparing The Ground - For Things You Can Not See

    We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground. The phrase "preparing the ground" is a metaphor for making the necessary preparations to create the favourable conditions for something to…

    Read More

  4. Easing The Weight Of Expectation

    Don’t you often feel like you are carrying the weight of the world on your back? Our start point is understanding that the ego has a very clear idea of how things ought to be, and its intention and ex…

    Read More

  5. Coram Deo - Living In Consciousness

    In you there is a dimension of consciousness far deeper than thought. It is the very essence of who you are. Coram Deo is about living in consciousness. It is a Latin phrase which literally means “to…

    Read More

  6. The Power Of Patience - Why You Need The World's Toughest Quality

    Nothing in the world can take the place of patience. Patience and persistence are omnipotent. In everyday life, patience is often overshadowed by the desire for immediate results. We live in an era of…

    Read More

  7. Demonizing The Other and Personal Acts Of Compassion

    What Does Demonizing The Other Mean? Demonizing the other refers to the act of portraying a group of people or an individual as inherently evil, threatening, or inferior. It often serves to justify di…

    Read More

  8. Why You Should Embrace Anomalies - The Incredible Value Of Disconfirming Evidence

    Is Your Desire To Be Right Greater Than Your Desire To Have Been Right? An anomaly is a deviation from what is expected or commonly regarded as the norm. It often appears as an unexpected observation…

    Read More

  9. Amazing Grace - The Majesty And The Mercy of Freedom From Your Pain

    "I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind, but now I see." The hymn and popular song "Amazing Grace" was written 250 years ago by John Newton, a former slave trader who in 1748 nearly died in a…

    Read More

  10. The Transformative Power Of Acceptance

    Experience The Power Of Acceptance. This website contains about 500,000 words. You could read every single word and it wouldn't make any real difference to you. You might become better informed, but t…

    Read More


Support This Site